Dirk Hamel
10 min readDec 27, 2016

Drowning by Degrees

Michael and Emily had a date planned that Friday.

Their first date.

That summer it had been a long time coming. We were newly fifteen and ready to take on the world — to high school and what adventures awaited beyond. I think we all saw it coming; Michael and Emily had been best friends since before they could walk. It was that small-town, girl-next-door, gooey romance type shit.

They actually did live next door to one another. I lived three houses down. We were inseparable, the three of us. And the more time we spent together, the more opportunity we had to misbehave. Our parents decided the local club swimming team was the safest place to unleash our prodigious collective energy.

That summer started like all the others, the sun and chlorine bleaching our hair into stiff, shiny straw. Thousands of yards of hard swimming every day led to aching but satisfied muscles and appetites that stunned our parents. But things started to change. Michael shot up three inches, hitting the growth spurt he’d been hoping for. Emily started to wear make-up, and I began to grow conscious that the dynamic between the three of us was changing.

I was there for it all — every minutia of their blossoming relationship. I played confidant to both parties, rejoicing when each one professed to me in secret their affection for the other. I was daytime hype man, late-night counsel, and the judge for every last-minute outfit change. I played witness to all the sweaty palms and awkward confessions. I was sure they were meant for one another, more sure than I had ever been of anything. I’m still sure.

Michael and Emily had a date planned for that Friday. What a damn shame it was, a real goddamn tragedy, that things went the way they did.

It’s sometime after midnight, I think. The world happens around me. There are frat guys at a table behind me, drinking pitcher after pitcher of cheap beer. There’s a TV on the wall to my left, the football game a low, distracting buzz. A group of swimmers walk in, easily identified by their sun-shocked hair and lithe bodies. I catch a whiff of chlorine as they brush past my seat at the bar. Swept up in the moment, I can’t help but think of Michael. I gulp the rest of my beer. It’s flat and tepid, and it burns like bile all the way down.

I’m sitting in a college bar, age twenty-four and a fifth-year senior. The doctors say I’m not supposed to drink on Zoloft, but a few beers can’t hurt, can they?

I turn to try and find a bartender, and then I see him from behind — at the swimmer table, there’s a guy, tall and lanky, with that signature blonde swimmer’s hair is pouring down his back. Like something from a long-forgotten dream, he’s gesturing, his body language is animated, and he runs his fingers through his hair, just the way that Michael always used to.

Then he turns and I can see his face. And it’s not Michael, because it never could be.

All over again I can feel it, I’m dizzy, I’m shivering, the world is heaving beneath me like the deck of some great ship.

There’s a hand at my back, breaking the spell.


I turn from the present — from the stale beer, the cigarette smoke, the greasy patina of countless grasping hands — turn from my present, and the past hits me square in the face.

“Alex, is that you?”

As if an apparition called up by some cruel god of circumstance, Emily just stands there, demure smile on her face, and all I can do is sit there and shiver.

Michael was the fastest swimmer on our team. The kid was like magic in the water — none of us could ever touch him, even on our best days. He was long-limbed, flexible, and most of all, he never, ever took a day off. Everyone wondered what his secret was, but there never was one. He just loved swimming — loved it more than anyone else did — and it was beautiful to watch. Even on days when we had doubles, he’d still be swimming laps long after the rest of us had cooled down and left. Half the time it didn’t even look like he was training — it looked more like he was playing.

That’s why everyone was so shocked the day the accident happened. I’ve replayed the details in my mind over and over and over again, and it never helps.

I should have been there.

It was a Thursday afternoon, a hot one. There’s nothing like the welcome chill of the pool after a sticky, sweaty summer day. After the dive, there’s this moment when everything is still. Then the moment ends and the water erupts with activity.

It was a hard practice that day, something to the tune of eight 400 IMs. We were worn down to the bone and cursing the coaches for putting us through that bullshit.

But not Michael. He told me he was just gonna do a little more yardage, and that he’d see me at home — that we’d have a talk, man to man, about the date the next day. Not that he needed my advice, but it wouldn’t have been the first time we’d been up all night talking.

I waited for a knock on the door, but as the night dragged on, and our morning practice approached, I figured he’d just gone home.

It takes me a long time to respond, to pick up the pieces of my brain and make an attempt at conversation.

“It uh … yeah, it’s me. How are you doing, Emily? How have you been?”

“It’s Em now, actually. Just Em. I’m well. How are you?”

“I’m, well, I’m doing alright.

“Well, that’s alright.” She says, a mischievous glint in her eyes.

“So, what are you doing here? This doesn’t exactly seem like your scene, so to speak …” I trail off numbly.

She brushes her hair back over her ear, and her scent — slight and sweet — softens the pervasive odor of the bar.

“So, by that definition, this would be your scene?”

“Well, it beats sitting at home on a Friday night, right?”

“That’s fair,” she says.

There are a few beats of silence.

“Really, though, what’s going on? I didn’t know you were in the neighborhood.”

“I’m actually working with the college right now,” she says. “I graduated a couple years ago with a sports management degree. The coaching staff is a little short-handed right now, so I’m filling in.”

“Really? You’re a swim coach now? That’s amazing. That’s … wow.”

“Thanks.” She smiles. “And what are you doing, Alex?”

“I’m actually still going to school here. I … uh … took a few years off,” I say lamely. There’s a long silence. I’m uncomfortable, sifting through my brain for something to say. She glances over her shoulder, and someone across the bar waves at her.

“Can I buy you a drink?” I ask.

“That would be nice.” She smiles and there’s a faint fuzzy feeling the back of my throat.

She orders a whiskey on the rocks, so I do the same. One of her friends comes over to introduce herself, but she’s not there for long. The night wears on at a slow burn. I know I shouldn’t be drinking, the doctor just upped my dosage, but she buys us another round. What am I gonna do, say no?

We’re talking, talking, and she never, ever breaks eye contact. The world is swimming around me, I’m floundering here at the bottom and the only thing that’s keeping me anchored is her eyes on mine. She waves goodbye to someone, I think her friends are leaving, and she’s laughing, her arm is on mine and she’s laughing, the bar is closing. We’re at my apartment, our clothes are coming off, she’s on top of me and I’m guilty, so guilty, I shouldn’t be doing this, I can’t be doing this.

I remember very clearly, the moment I decided to quit swimming.

It was never something I’d even considered before. Swimming was my life, swimming was my everything. Every friend I had, every memory I cherished, every pride, every failing, it was where I lived.

Michael’s accident changed things.

It wasn’t until about a month afterward that we were allowed to swim again. It was our first day back, and the mood was sober.

We all sat on deck before practice, huddled as if to ward off some creeping chill, even though it was still the dead of summer. Our coach stood in front of us, endlessly wrapping and rewrapping the cord of a stopwatch around his hands. His words swam around in the numbness of my brain. Be careful … shallow water blackout … can happen to anyone … never swim alone. It was like he couldn’t just come out and say it — as if Michael’s ghost was catching in his throat. It could happen to anyone, even the golden boy of the swim team.

We filed into the water one by one without ardor, the enthusiasm that had always characterized our practices was markedly absent.

It started during warm-up, and grew with every lap — a candle blazing in my chest and a hollowness pushing me forward to rage out faster, faster, faster.

I was burning much too quickly, and if I let it, the flame would surely consume all that remained. The alternative was to stop, but if I did that, I could do naught but sputter out, spiral down, down to the bottom.

Trembling, shivering, I couldn’t hold back the fear in my throat.

I left the pool at a dead sprint, ignoring the calls from my coaches and teammates as I made my escape.

I never went back to that pool. A month or two later, my dad was promoted to a new job halfway across the state, and away we went.

I watched Emily out of the window of the moving van as we pulled out of the driveway. Every day since Michael had died she’d donned an armor of tasteful clothing and carefully applied make-up, as though the first date that never happened would somehow become a reality. But as she stared back at me, I saw that all the concealer in the world couldn’t have hidden the dark circles under her eyes.

I jolt awake in the darkness of the room, sweating cold into tangled sheets. By the light of the moon I can see Emily there, breathing soundly, a small smile on her face.

Taking pains not to make too much noise, I sit up. I’m light-headed and a little queasy, and I don’t know how to feel, so I step out onto the porch to smoke a cigarette.

My emotions are a jumble the likes of which I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to untangle.

Fact: It’s been nine years since Michael drowned.

Fact: I was never in love with Emily. I’m not, I never have been.

And yet…

I look back in through the window to see her sleeping.

I can’t help but feel that this is a personal betrayal, I can’t shake this feeling that I’ve stepped over a line that never should have been crossed. But it’s been nine years.

It’s been nine years, but it was all my fault. I should have been there, I should have stayed. I flick the cigarette out into the yard and watch it sputter out in the wet grass. I allow the tears to come, silently at first, then in shuddering sobs.

The door opens behind me.

“Hey.” It’s Emily’s voice, but I can’t look, I can’t turn around. “Did you come out here to smoke?”

I nod, trying to hold in the sobs.

“Those things’ll kill you, you know,” she says, light-hearted.

“Em … I — I …”

“Hey.” She cuts me off, wrapping her arms around me from behind, and she’s warm, so warm, and I can’t hold it in any more. I turn to meet her embrace.

“It’s okay. Shhhhh.” She pats my back gently. “Everything’s gonna be okay. I’m here.”

“Em.” I mumble into her shoulder. “How… how do you do it? How do you deal with it?”

“I don’t.” She sighs, long and deep, and I think I can feel the faintest shudder at the bottom. “I wish that I could tell you that it gets easier.” She pulls me closer. “But the truth is, it doesn’t ever get easier, not really. Even for me. Some days are harder than others. Some days it feels like I can’t even get out of bed.” She pulls out of our embrace, and looks into my eyes. “It wasn’t your fault, Alex. It never was. Just…” she pauses for a moment, searching for words, “learn to trust the people around you. Trust me.”

And then all I feel is the softness of her lips on mine.

That Friday morning, Emily and I were the first ones to practice. We were early — we usually were — but Michael didn’t join us on the walk there. Emily noted his absence and I joked that maybe he was so nervous for the date that he couldn’t sleep the night before. She blushed, and said he didn’t have anything to be nervous about.

In retrospect, we should have known something was wrong.

Michael never missed practice.

When we arrived at the pool, we were first on deck — before the lifeguards, even. I wish we hadn’t been.

Michael had never left the pool the night before. He’d never finished that extra yardage.

His body was limp, suspended a few feet below the surface of the water. His skin was pale — much paler than I feel it should have been. His hair, long and blonde, was spread in a diaphanous halo around his head. His eyes were closed, peaceful.

Perhaps it’s just my imagination, or a trick of my memory, but it seemed to me as though the corners of his mouth were turned upwards into a slight smile.