Cold Plunge

The water is so cold it burns, and he gasps involuntarily, closing his mouth just before he sinks below the surface. Bubbles whoosh past his ear and for a moment everything around him is swirling indistinctly. He hovers in the water, trying to bear it long enough for the disturbance he has created to settle, but eventually he’s forced back up again, where he takes a long, shuddering breath.

He’d read once that extremely cold water could cause heart attacks, and he could see why. For a fraction of an instant he’d felt like his entire body, every single muscle and neuron, had frozen when he jumped into the water. Treading with his head above the surface, he still feels sluggish and slow, and knows hypothermia will set in if he stays in too long. He takes another deep breath, thinking of the burn at the end of a long race, where you just want to collapse in a heap but you know you need to keep going, that the only way out is through.

Dipping below the surface again, he dives straight for the bottom and scrabbles his hands against the rocks and sand. He feels slick algae and dead leaves and the other debris that accumulates over time on the bottoms of waterways, but not what he is looking for. His lungs are starting to ache and he searches for another few seconds before blasting to the surface again, inhaling deeply, diving back down. He repeats the process over and over again, with increasing desperation, knowing he is close to his limits.

The next time he rises, he hears a voice from shore, and he spins unsteadily in the water, looking for the speaker. The trees and bushes are a blur of indistinct green, cold blue sky rising above. He sees a rough brown patch that might be the beach, although it’s hard to tell. He hears the voice again and finally locates its source, a patch of bright colour standing out against the green. She’s telling him to come to shore, to stop looking, and he shakes his head.

He can’t quite see what happens next but he hears a splash, and knows she must be in the water with him. A vague shape bisects the water to his right and her legs move in powerful kicking strokes, bringing her closer. He dives and dives again, turning up more rocks. He finds something soft and slimy that wriggles away when he touches it and he recoils in terror. Opening his eyes under the water, he sees nothing other than turbulence. Swirling muck and algae and bubbles.

She’s reached him by the time he comes to the surface again.

‘You need to go to shore,’ she says. ‘You’ve been in too long. I put out a blanket for you.’

His teeth are chattering and he nods. He knows she’s right.

‘I’ll keep looking,’ she says. ‘I might find them.’

He can’t tell, because even up close her face is a blur, but he thinks she’s probably looking down in that way she has when she says something she knows isn’t true. They probably skated along the bottom, skipping and hopping and dancing, and were carried downstream by the current. Even if she can find them, they will be scratched and useless. They both know it, and the diving and searching is just a charade, so they can say they did what they could.

It’s an excuse to linger at the river just a little longer before they trudge backhome, crossing under the fire gate and cutting across through the hayfields, watching the sun set and paint everything with shocking orange light. She will guide him with one hand under his elbow and will pretend she’s not, and he will hold the basket and swing it uselessly in his arm, pretending nothing is wrong and everything is ordinary.

At the head of his driveway, she’ll ask if he wants any help and he will say no, holding his shoulders stiffly. Not because he is ashamed, but because he doesn’t want her to see what will happen next, the screaming, the scolding, the yelling at him for being so careless. If his parents haven’t been drinking too much that day, maybe they won’t beat him that badly; maybe he won’t be stiff the next day, maybe he won’t have visible bruises, so he can pretend nothing happened.

‘Not that big a deal,’ he will say, when she asks. ‘We’ll order some new ones, it will be okay.’

She will pretend she believes him, because she doesn’t know what else to do, even though she feels like she should be doing something else. She feels like this is not what friends do, the pretending not to see what is right in front of you, even though his pride makes it difficult to do anything else. She wants to tell him to come to her house, where her mother will silently feed them dinner and then ask him if he wants to stay the night, where maybe her father will see the terror behind his eyes and ask if he needs help.

He paddles back for shore, thrashing because he can’t see very well, and stumbles onto the sand, grabbing the blue blanket and hugging it close. His whole body is shuddering with the cold and he hears faint splashing noises from the middle of the river, the sound of a skilled diver moving almost soundlessly below the water and back up again.

Eventually, she strikes out for the shore, and he knows she won’t have them.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she says, reaching out to touch his cold shoulder.

‘I can’t find your glasses anywhere.’