The Boy Who Couldn’t Hold His Breath Underwater

The party started out fine.

I made sure Jackie took his meds before we left. I always made sure of that. He hated me babying him, but sometimes he skipped his dose on purpose, and he suffered for it. I never wanted that for him. I only ever wanted him to be okay, so I made sure he took his meds.

We’d been dating for a few years. I was kind of ridiculously in love with him, and he’d never given me any hints that his feelings weren’t mutual. He always expressed himself differently than I did, but I never minded. I knew he loved me. It was in the little things he did.

He was the one who suggested the party. It had been an antisocial day for us, and Jackie got restless when he was stuck inside for too long, so I said we would go, even if I wasn’t in the mood for a party. Jackie was excited. He put on a smile and his favorite shirt and didn’t even protest when I told him to swallow his pills. He didn’t get mad when I told him to open his mouth and lift his tongue so I could see he really swallowed them. He grabbed me and kissed me, and I laughed against his lips.

The party was at some kid’s dad’s ridiculous house, glowing pool in the backyard and fully stocked bar. We didn’t even really know the kid who was throwing it, but we knew the important people. Jackie always had a knack for getting us invited to things. He was more of a social butterfly than me, and I always indulged him. He thanked me for it in meaningful ways that made it worth it.

When we got there, we were greeted with enthusiastic drunk cheering and slaps on our backs. We were handed beers, and I stole Jackie’s from him, because he wasn’t supposed to drink on his meds. His smile was only just a little tight. He tugged me to the kitchen so he could grab a soda instead, but his movements were strained. I hated making him mad, but he was reckless, and I wanted him safe. I refused to apologize for that.

“Hey,” I said, reaching out to rub his back. “I’m sorry.”

Jackie sighed and then pulled me closer. “Yeah. It’s okay.” And then it was, for the moment. His smile turned genuine, and when he kissed me, I melted against him. Someone shouted at us to get a room, and Jackie whispered, “Later,” in my ear. I held that promise close to my chest.

We mingled. We laughed, and Jackie seemed okay. As the night went on I thought I saw his eyes start to fade, but then I figured I was just worried too much and I was imagining it. It wouldn’t be the first time. I was always protective of Jackie, but I wanted him to have fun, so I tried not to hover that night. He kept me close to his side, always touching me, but that was normal. He had separation anxiety, and he got nervous if I was away from him for more than ten minutes. And I wanted to be around him all the time anyway.

The party started to wear down after a while, but Jackie was famous for staying until the sun came up, so we hung around. We went into the backyard when it was still dark out and sat by the pool. Jackie got in with all his clothes on, and I laughed. He stretched out on a pool float and drifted, staring up at the sky. I sat on the edge of the pool, jeans rolled up and feet in the water. Jackie turned quiet. It happened a lot, so I didn’t let it worry me any more than usual. I watched him for a while, waiting to see if he would say anything. Sometimes he opened up to me and sometimes he didn’t, but I never pushed him into talking if he didn’t want to. I always let him do it when he was ready.

“Hey,” he said, and I smiled.

“Yeah?”

“It’s quiet out here.” He let his hand dangle in the water, sifting it through his fingers. His eyes were still on the stars above. It wasn’t what I’d expected him to say, but it was something.

“It is,” I said. Mostly everyone else had gone home by now, and those that had lingered were either passed out somewhere in the house or winding down with a smoke and a quiet movie. But out here it was just the two of us and the crickets. I loved quiet nights like this, when everything was still and peaceful. The pool water was glowing blue and bright against the night, oddly calming. Jackie was a boat out to sea, a long shadowy dark spot in the clear water.

“You okay?” I asked, even though I knew he hated that question.

“Yeah,” he said. He sounded fine. I tried to ignore the paranoid feeling in my chest.

Suddenly, he rolled off his pool float and into the water. I freaked out for a second until he came back up, splashing me. “Swim with me.”

I couldn’t say no, mostly because I was worried about what would happen if I left him in the pool by himself. He liked water, liked swimming, liked trying to see how long he could hold his breath. It worried me. He’d passed out a couple times from doing it, and yet he kept trying, kept pushing his limits. He always said he wanted to swim to the very bottom of the ocean one day. It was something I hated, but I didn’t want to upset him by bringing it up. So I got in the pool with him, clothes and all. He smiled at me and swam towards me until we were pressed up against each other. I put my arms around him and rested my head on his shoulder. He buried his face in my neck, arms tightening around my waist.

“I love you,” I said, because I felt like it was a good time to say it, like I needed to tell him right then, to remind him, and his grip tightened even more. He didn’t say it back, but he didn’t have to.

We stood in the shallow end holding each other for a few minutes, water lapping gently against the sides of the pool around us. Then Jackie pulled away from me and floated on his back towards the deep end. I followed him instinctively. The deep end wasn’t that deep, only 6 feet, which was exactly how tall Jackie was. He flipped over in the water and did a hand-stand, feet sticking up. He kept his balance and stayed under for long enough that my heart fluttered in fear and I ducked under the water to pull him back up. When we surfaced, his eyes were hard.

“I was fine, Tommy,” he said, and my heart cracked in my chest. He was angry at me when he said my name like that. But I faced him and looked at him without backing down.

“You scared me,” I said, and he sighed.

“Stop worrying. I can hold my breath.”

“Yeah, but you do it for longer than you should.” To anyone else it probably wouldn’t have been such a big deal, but Jackie was different. He put himself in dangerous situations on purpose because he didn’t care, and that terrified me.  I thought after the few years we’d been together that I had made him care a little, but it wasn’t enough.

Jackie went under again, and I went with him this time, because I had to. We stayed there and looked at each other under the water, cheeks puffed out. He smiled at me, bright and brilliant, an abrupt change from his anger. He was always like that, and I was used to the fluctuations by now, but they still put me on edge. At least when he seemed happy I could curb my worry. So I always did everything I could to keep him in a good mood. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. And by this time I was okay at comforting him when it didn’t.

I knew I couldn’t make him better, not really. That was what the meds were for. I knew I couldn’t do everything I wanted to. But I could be there for him. And I was always hoping that it would be enough.

I stayed under the water for as long as I could, and then I lurched back up, sputtering and coughing. Jackie closed his eyes and stayed under for a whole minute more. I counted the seconds. When he emerged, he looked less angry than before. He took a deep breath and smiled, looking satisfied.

“Why do you do that?” I asked quietly, knowing it might set him off. But I needed to know. He’d never really told me before why he liked to push himself so hard, why he was obsessed with being underwater.

Jackie floated on his back and looked at the sky again. “I like being surrounded by water. It’s like . . . absolute silence. Everywhere. Outside and in my head. Sometimes I feel like it’s the only place where I can really find peace. And maybe that’s weird, but it works for me.” He sighed, glancing at me. “I know you don’t like it. I’m sorry. But you don’t get it, Tommy.”

My heart cleaved in two again. No, I didn’t get it. I tried so hard, for him, and after these last few years, I thought I was getting closer to understanding.

“I thought I made you feel at peace,” I said, my voice cracking on the last word. I couldn’t help being emotional. Most of the time I kept it subdued around Jackie, because I wanted to be strong for him. But in moments like these, when he was talking to me like this, it slipped out.

Jackie righted himself in the water and put his arms around me. I hugged him back, holding on tight.

“You do, okay? It’s not . . . the same. I wish I could explain it better. But you help me. You know that, right?”

I let out a shuddering breath, and Jackie’s grip on me tightened. “I know I don’t always say it. But you help me. You make things a little easier.”

A little easier. That was all I could hope for.

The night got darker and quieter as we stood there in the middle of the pool. Jackie kissed me, and for a while, we just did that. We kissed until my lips were sore and my head was dizzy, and when I pulled away and leaned my forehead against his, Jackie brushed his thumb over my lips. He smiled, and it was a real smile, genuine and warm and happy. The sight of it made my chest ache.

“Love you,” he whispered.

“I know,” I said, because I did, and he kissed me again. I yawned against his mouth this time. Jackie laughed and pulled away from me, gently pushing me towards the pool ladder.

“Go find us an empty room. I don’t feel like driving back and if you’re tired you should sleep.”

“Come with me.” I climbed out of the pool, extending my hand for him, but he shook his head.

“I’m gonna chill out here for a few more minutes.” At my look, he gave me that smile again. “I’m okay, babe. I promise. I just want to float for a little longer.”

I trusted him. I believed him. The sight of that smile made it impossible not to. And he’d taken his meds. He should be okay, even if he’d been in a bad spot for a while.

But that had always been a lie I told myself when I was with Jackie. Because I wanted it to be true. I wanted him to be okay.

So I said, “Okay,” and went inside to dry off.

I found an empty guest bedroom on the first floor and collapsed on the bed. I wanted to wait up for Jackie, but I was more tired than I thought, because I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I fell asleep before I wanted to.

A cold, still slightly wet body snuggling up against my back woke me up some time later. Crushing relief broke through my sleepy haze, and I turned around and pulled Jackie closer. He nuzzled my neck and murmured something I couldn’t hear. I mumbled something incomprehensible back at him and pressed myself closer. I fell asleep again with him next to me, and I was passed out enough that time that I didn’t feel him leave an hour later.

When I woke up, I was alone. The house was quiet. I wasn’t sure who else had stayed the night, but I knew me and Jackie couldn’t be the only ones. The time on the digital clock next to the bed said it was close to eleven in the morning, so I figured the rest of the party stragglers had all woken up sometime during the night or morning and gone home. I dragged myself off the bed and stretched, joints cracking. Jackie was probably in the kitchen, foraging for food. His meds made him hungry, and he liked to cook.

But the kitchen was empty. The living room had a couple people passed out on the couches, but not Jackie. He wouldn’t have left without me. I was sure of that.

I remembered him waking me up in the middle of the night, and then leaving the bed. If he was awake already and not in the kitchen, maybe he was swimming again. So I went outside.

I panicked when I couldn’t find him immediately. Then my heart slowed when I noticed the blurry blob floating underneath the water. I relaxed and waited for him to come up.

When he didn’t, I jumped into the water.

I dove under and pulled him up. His eyes were closed. His body was heavy.

“Jackie,” I said, because I thought he was just doing what he did. When he wouldn’t respond to me, I thought maybe he’d passed out. It had happened before.

And then I noticed it.

His chest wasn’t moving. He wasn’t breathing.

I became a robot. I went on autopilot. It was like my brain just shut down, because it refused to acknowledge that this was real. I put my hands on his chest in the way you’re supposed to for CPR and tried to pump his heart. I gave him mouth-to-mouth. His lips were cold and stiff.

“Jackie,” I said when nothing was working, as if he could hear me. “Jackie.” My voice broke and cracked on the last syllable, and the dam broke in me, and then the tears started coming. I tried CPR again, desperately. I knew that people could be revived hours after drowning. I’d done research, because I was scared of what Jackie might do to himself someday, and I wanted to be prepared whenever we went swimming. I never really thought I’d have to use what I learned.

But now it was happening, and it felt like I was watching it all from above me, like it was happening to someone else. I kept trying to push air into Jackie’s chest, staring at his face. He looked like he could’ve been sleeping. He looked peaceful. I blinked away tears and tried to breathe through choking sobs.

Someone came out of the house. Someone shouted. Someone called 911. Someone’s hands were on me, but I was blind to anything but Jackie, still trying to get him to breathe. I kept thinking he would sputter and cough and his eyes would open and he would look at me.

When the paramedics arrived, they tried to take him away. I screamed and cried “No, no, no” at them until my throat was raw, until my heart was ragged and bleeding. And when they lifted him onto a stretcher, I finally saw the words he’d scrawled on his arm in black Sharpie: Do not resuscitate. The image of his arm dangling from the side of the stretcher was welded to my eyelids and burned into my brain. Those words echoed in my head in Jackie’s voice.

He’d said it to me once, when we were at the beach together.

“If I drown, don’t resuscitate me,” he said, floating on his back in the ocean, and I hated him in that moment, hated him so much for even putting that thought into my head. We’d only been dating for a year at that point, and his illness was still new to me, still terrifying. But I never left. And the years got a little easier and a little harder at the same time.

But even through everything, I really thought we would be okay. I really thought he would make it through. I never imagined I’d wake up one morning and he’d be gone from my life.

When they wouldn’t let me go with him in the ambulance, I shut down. I stopped functioning. I just stopped.

It was hours later when I found the note in my pocket. He must’ve slipped it there when he was in bed with me. It was wrinkled and damp and the words were runny from the water, but it was still readable.

You were my life raft, it said. You made it easier when it mattered. You were the calm in the center of my storm. Please don’t ever think I didn’t love you. I did. I do. Always. But the waves were just too big. The current was too strong. You couldn’t control it, Tommy, but I love you so much for trying. Thank you.

Years later, when I learned to let go of my anger, when I learned forgiveness and understanding, I came back to the note over and over again. I kept it in my wallet. It took me a long time to stop blaming myself, and a long time to stop blaming him. But when I did, I understood.

Love isn’t a cure-all. We all like to think it is, but it’s not. It’s a balm. We can’t truly save the ones we love from the things that are eating them alive, but we can be there, and we can makes things easier when it matters. We can leave a mark. We can be a life raft, if only for a little while. All the way up until the end.

I made peace with that, eventually. I couldn’t save Jackie. But I helped him float.

And that was enough.

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