- The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water
Remember the strength of chlorine, the indoor pool, swim class clinging to the kickboard then jumping from the ledge into the arms of the smiling white lady, only mostly sure she would catch you, mom calling Cameron! Cameron! to get you to look, then said kick, kick! Remember, there’s nothing a mother won’t do for one still shot of your head above the water. It’s important to always practice good form: kick your legs. Remember Tortola, the sea like melted marbles and the sun at the equator, your brown skin browning; with a stretch of snorkel between your teeth you jumped in and chased a sea turtle for the length of the tiny island’s beach, the pressure in your ears right when you thought you could catch it, mom and dad, sighing when you came back to the surface. Remember your worst fear is not being able to breathe. Most people who drown are brown, and eighty percent of people who drown are male. Don’t forget to kick your legs. Don’t forget middle school musicals, all the costumes and makeup, the white boys making jokes about blackface, the laughter gurgling in their necks, no one else like you to back you up. Sometimes you will swallow water. Remember: a throat is the size of a Skittle or a hole in a hoodie, and Trayvon’s legs kicked hard against the night. Drowning isn’t loud or splashy, it’s silent — autonomic, neck tilt and terror. When you are drowning, feet become rocks, hands push down water in vain, and the thump of blood is the only thing that can be heard. It is all, supposedly, painless. Always remember that. Always remember your first girlfriend’s grandmother sneering at the sight [End Page 1] of her white arms wrapped up in your hoodie, how you pretended it was painless, but you couldn’t help but kick your legs; or how nobody will save you anymore when you yell I can’t breathe so just kick your legs; or every sidewalk where a white girl sees you, pulls her phone up to her face and crosses the street like she’s guarding something secret — kick your legs; remember that you have been a white girl’s secret before — kick your legs. When you are drowning, don’t forget to practice good form: float on the surface; part the water with your lips; only swallow as much as you can hold. [End Page 2]
Cameron Barnett holds an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh, where he was poetry editor for Hot Metal Bridge and co-coordinator of Pitt’s Speakeasy Reading Series. He currently is an associate poetry editor for Pittsburgh Poetry Review. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Winter Tangerine Review, Florida Review, Barely South Review, and TriQuarterly.