I drowned. I know that sounds like I’m making it up. How can I be telling you I drowned if I really drowned? But I did.
How do you know when you’re dead? It’s when your heart stops and you aren’t breathing, right? And so then if you’re dead because your lungs are full of water, then that means you drowned, right?
I drowned. The stupid thing, is I almost did it twice.
I used to sneak into my parents’ bathroom when they left me home alone. I knew Mama knew. I did it anyway. I played in her makeup, and her nail polish, and if she was going to be gone long enough, her bubble baths. She caught me in her makeup once, but they were both home that time, and that’s another story. I didn’t get in trouble though. She helped me with the lipstick.
The first time I stole a bubble bath, I fell in love with lavender. There’s something about the name that just says you’re supposed to bathe in it, and there was something about the scent that suggested I’d taken a lavender bubble bath before. I had rummaged around and found some polish I liked, and so I drew a tub of hot water while I did my fingers and toes. When my black art was done, I settled myself into the foamy pool of comfort, careful to keep my toes dry.
Bubble baths are dreamy. I don’t have to tell most of you that. It was fabulous! I’d been planning it for a week since I learned Mama would be gone all day, and now the relaxing heat, and the tickling bubbles, and the tantalizingly fragrant lavender, were everything I’d hoped they’d be and more! I wiggled my toes above the suds in delight, and then I noticed something odd.
It was the lights on the wall of Mama’s bathroom. There was nothing special about them. They were just three ordinary vanity lights, but one of the bulbs was out. That’s not even really that out-of-the-ordinary, but the strange feeling of déjà vu was. I’d stared at the lights before, the same bulb out, and the more I thought about it, the more I was sure I had stared at it from under the water.
I’m not known for thinking things through real well before I do them. I tend to get into trouble a lot as a result, and I’m pretty sure there’s a Darwin Award somewhere with my name on it. I cleared the bubbles away from the top end of the tub, and slid down so my head sank under the water. It was like sliding into another world… the echoing sounds of my skin skidding against the porcelain, the slight stinging in my sinuses as the soapy water trickled in, the fuzzy view of the world through bath-colored glasses, and the eerie realization that I was instantly not myself anymore.
I couldn’t have been more than a few months old. Mama stopped up the drain in the bathroom wash basin. The basin seemed enormous. She filled it with warm soapy bubbles, not lavender, but hypoallergenic Johnson & Johnson baby bath. I giggled as Mama lowered me in. I loved my bubble baths! The tiny bubbles tingled as they popped against my tender skin. Mama’s hands were under my arms and it was stopping me from reaching down to play with the bubbles, an act I’m sure would have looked more like slapping at them in my uncoordinated new body.
Mama had a soft yellow washcloth and she held me with one hand while she washed me with the other. She kept repeating words. One of them was Flower. I knew already that was my name. The others I didn’t understand, but I did know she was telling me not to eat the bubbles. The air in the bathroom was cold, so it felt really good when the warm cloth washed the cold away. I was making great fun of it, eating the bubbles intentionally so she would grab my arms with the warm cloth again.
Then the noise came, the loud jittery noise that takes Mama away. She said something to me in a coaxing voice, and ran quickly into the other room. I saw her pick up the little black thing that made the noise and begin talking into it. Sometimes she talked into it for what seemed like forever to me. Sometimes she forgot me… when I was hungry… when my diaper needed changing… when I needed to be held… There was this horrible, empty feeling of loneliness in my chest I had equated with the loud noise and the black talking thing.
I turned a little. I realized as I was doing it, that was probably what Mama had coaxed me not to do. I felt my balance tip and quick as that, my feet were out in the cold air and my head was under the warm water. No more tears. What an ironic slogan. I stared up out of the water at the three light bulbs above the sink.
A child that age should be too young to know what it means to drown. We have instincts to swim, but those instincts don’t mean very much when your feet are up in the air. I struggled for a minute – I don’t remember panic – and that’s when it happened. A baby girl who slipped under her bathwater remembered having drowned before.
The memory meant almost nothing to me as a infant left unattended for one horrifying moment in a wash basin. As a thirteen-year-old girl sneaking into her mother’s bathtub and reliving it, it meant everything.
It must have happened in another life, before I was born maybe. I should have been panicking over being submerged in the water, but instead I was just mesmerized. The water was going to take my life. I knew it. I accepted it. I almost welcomed it. I remembered, but none of it made sense to me as a baby, so my developing mind turned it into thoughts it could understand.
Three images stood out clearly in my fledgeling imagination as I felt myself dying. The first was that my mother was gone. The little black thing had taken her away forever this time. I could still envision her talking to it before I had slipped under, but now they were gone. She was gone.
The second image was the one that made everything seem okay. It was the image of three lights on the wall above me. Two blurry lights. One dead light. I had stared at the lights before. There were supposed to be three of them lit. It was curious. I wanted to tell Mama to fix the dead bulb.
The third image was the one that drowned me. It was the image of two tiny little feet, silhouetted against the light from the two good bulbs. I could feel them. Cold in the air, instead of being warm under the water as they were supposed to be. But there was something, that in my infancy, I couldn’t understand, and so I stared at it, until the water forced itself into my lungs, and blackness forced itself into my mind, and I drowned. My toenails were painted black.
Déjà vu: Two different events that happen at the same time? Or the same one that happens twice? Perhaps it’s neither, but two things happened simultaneously at that moment. They were the same and yet they weren’t.
My mother, in the other room on the phone, turned and saw I had slipped under the water. I was probably only under for a few seconds. Even under the water, I heard her scream. She pulled me from the wash basin unharmed. I had instinctively held my breath. But I’d had a strange memory that scared me, and I could sense Mama’s utter panic. I burst into tears.
At the same time, I realized the bathwater was forcing its way into my lungs. I exploded from the bath, retching over the side of the tub, choking and gasping for air. The convulsions subsided and I stared at the mess on the bathroom floor. I tasted lavender in my mouth, my nose, my throat, my lungs. I felt it in my eyes. I hated it as much as I had loved it only a moment before. I burst into tears.
I tried to make sense of it all as I climbed from the tub and began cleaning up the mess I’d made. I was going to get in trouble again when Mama noticed the bath mat had been changed. The black polish on my toes… how could I have remembered something like that as a baby? How could I have remembered something that hadn’t happened yet? Maybe a better question is: how could I have remembered something that never happened at all?
© 2013 Anne Schilde