It was late April by the time the fifth-graders at Glades Elementary went on their school field trip that year. You know the kind of field trip I mean. One hundred and thirty ten- and eleven-year-olds piled onto three Greyhound buses that bounce and jolt their way north on I-95, heading for Orlando. As the hours passed, the flat scrub grass that borders the highway in the southernmost part of Miami was replaced by wide pastureland and then rows of orange groves, the trees moist from the spray of twitching sprinklers, their silver blades just visible from the dusty bus windows.
On bus number three, the air conditioning blew too cold in the front seats where I sat with the other chaperons. I turned to my window and squeezed the metal latches with my thumb and forefinger, struggling to slide the glass up and give passage to the warm air that I knew hung thick outside. The pane shifted in its casing but didn’t give way.
Summer was officially two months off, but it had arrived in South Florida some time ago. On days like this, in the latter part of spring, the heat rises from the pavement and seems to
take on a semisolid form. The humid air outside my recalcitrant window created asymmetrical shadows that spilled onto the gravel along the shoulder of the road.
In addition to my own son, I was assigned two boys to supervise on this trip. The first, Karl, was a German boy with impeccable manners. He had freckled skin and hair the color of wet beach sand. He spent the entire first night vomiting up his Cracker Barrel dinner. The second, Javier, was a tiny Brazilian kid with over-sized glasses. Javier’s mom, Carlie, was on bus number two. She had volunteered to chaperon three girls whose parents couldn’t take off work to accompany their children on this trip. In order for Carlie to take charge of these three girls, somebody had to agree to watch over Javier. That’s where I came in.
Javier was a soft-spoken child who could draw action figures that sprung to life on his wide-ruled notebook paper. The other boys were always thrusting fine-point Sharpies into Javier’s left hand and asking him to sketch Spiderman or one of the Pokemon characters like Charizard or Pikachu.
Every evening before going to bed, Javier had to inject growth hormones into the mid-section of his thigh. I dutifully reminded him to administer his medication, but I have to admit, I didn’t offer to help. Instead, as soon as I was sure he had himself positioned on the bed with his right leg up and the syringe in hand, I busied myself re-folding stray tee-shirts or smoothing out the creases in the thick fabric of the dust-colored curtains so I wouldn’t have to witness the needle poking into his flesh.
If only I had limited myself to caring for my son Matthew and his two friends, maybe nothing would have gone wrong. I knew these boys, and their parents, too. Not well, but we all lived in the same suburban neighborhood bounded by a cluster of pine trees and dotted with swimming pools. Javier had a sister my daughter’s age, and she and Javier would come over to skateboard down the steep incline of the fixed bridges that ran parallel to our house. If the pavement was too slick for that, they sat at the edge of our faded redwood deck and fished for grunt and miniature yellowtail in the brackish canal that led out to the bay. And I used to drop my son off at Karl’s house after school. There, they dared each other to jump off the bridge into the intercoastal waterway that was Karl’s backyard. They couldn’t wait to immerse themselves in a dolphin-filled lagoon and dive into the over-sized aquarium we had come to Orlando to see.
The dolphin adventure was last on the excursion schedule. First, the kids lined up to receive masks and snorkels and a flat foam vest whose purpose was never quite clear, since it definitely was not a flotation device. Then we proceeded to different attractions in groups of twenty or thirty. Our group set off for a section of the park that had a sandy beach and hundreds of tropical fish that languished in the shallow water right off the shore of a large man-made coral reef. The reef was dredged so that it had a gradual slope, which allowed you to wade out nearly thirty yards before you reached chest-deep water. It probably never got deeper than twelve feet, even toward the center, before the incline rose back up in the direction of the opposite shore.
My charges, the three boys, immediately made their way out to the middle of the lagoon, where you could dive under and make faces at a shark that lurked just on the other side of a protective plexiglass screen. They swam back in and called for the other kids to join them.
Carlie was settled on a towel she had arranged near the water. She had on a bikini top and cutoff shorts. Her copper-tinged hair coiled down her back. As Carlie flipped through the pages of a fashion magazine, the three girls she was caring for waded near shore. The girls shrieked when a clown fish or a flat-faced angel fish brushed too close to their bare knees. They pressed the park-issued masks to their faces and dunked their heads under, but they didn’t want me to adjust the ribbed rubber straps, or secure them in back.
I stayed in the shallow water with the girls for a while, breathing in the scent of sun-screen and salt. I tried to scoop up one of the scores of pinfish that hid among the bleached coral, but I couldn’t get any of them to stay in my cupped palms for more than a second or two. Then I let Carlie know I was going to swim farther out. I wanted to see the shark, too. I lay on my belly and propelled myself face-down toward the glass partition. A school of mullet drifted by in a wave of white sheen, uninterested in the proximity of the giant predator. I wondered if captivity had robbed these fish of their instinct to flee danger; I worried that they wouldn’t know to hide if the protective wall were somehow shattered and the shark set loose.
When I reached the partition that separated the shark from its prey, I dove down, blowing air out through my snorkel, causing a trail of bubbles to rise toward the surface. Viewed underwater, the shark seemed even more massive than the dimensions advertised in the glossy Discovery Cove brochure. Water apparently has a magnifying effect caused by refraction that is accentuated when objects are viewed through a diving mask. I prefer to believe, however, that the magnification is merely nature’s way of protecting the sea’s inhabitants from those who would otherwise be more brazen in their attempts to conquer these astonishing creatures.
At the glass wall, I was close enough to examine those portions of the shark’s dull gray skin that had been scraped and scarred to an uneven shade of white. The shark swam in circles, oblivious to our presence. I decided that the girls were missing out.
Kicking my way up, I surfaced, and paddled back to shore. As I neared the man-made beach, I could see that Carlie had ventured into the water and was showing her girls how to clamp down on the rubber mouthpiece of the snorkel and breathe in. The biggest girl, Jolene, said the snorkel made her choke. She wouldn’t use it. The other girls followed her lead, and left the pliable breathing pieces on Carlie’s towel. I told them it didn’t matter anyway, because you had to dive all the way under to see the shark, and the snorkel wouldn’t help them there.
Jolene’s two friends swam to the deep section of the lagoon ahead of us. One of the girls had black hair pulled up in a ponytail and secured with a bright pink band. Bits of stiff dark hair had fallen out of the headband and lay just above the girl’s shoulders. The other had short, tight curls colored a deep shade of brown and dusted with bits of red.
Jolene and I were following behind her two friends. I was snorkeling, face underwater, focused on the flow of multicolored fish that surrounded us. Jolene, I realize now, must have still been walking, balancing on tiptoe.
You have to understand that Jolene, at eleven, was at least as tall as I was and definitely weighed more. She had the shape of a boxer, square with thick thighs and long, strong arms. Her hair had been plaited in a dozen fat braids that fell right above her collarbone. Heavy eyelids dominated her full face. Beneath the lids, she had light brown eyes flecked with darker spots. Jolene was known for her quick mastery of all things mathematical, and her penchant for staying after class to help staple papers or arrange manila files in alphabetical order.
When we got near the shark wall, I noticed that Jolene was splashing at the surface water. I figured she was just clowning around, trying to get the other kids to notice her. Anxious to see the shark again, I turned to dive under when one of the other girls called out, “Hey Jolene, quit hanging on me. You’re making me sink.”
I pulled at the water, keeping my head up, and made my way toward the two of them. I could see that Jolene’s friend was twisting at the shoulders, trying to loosen herself from Jolene’s grasp. When she succeeded, Jolene’s face disappeared below the surface of the water. My eyes darted to the shore. There were whitewashed lifeguard stands that circled the lagoon, but no one was paying attention to Jolene or to me. We were now closer to the far side of this giant fish tank than we were to our dry towels, or to Carlie.
I treaded water, unsure of what to do. I didn’t want to scream for help, partly because I didn’t want to frighten the other kids, but mostly because I didn’t want to seem like I had lost control of the situation. Jolene’s head bobbed to the surface. She took in air. Was she going to swim to the shallow water now? Was this some sort of ongoing game between her and the girl who had shrugged her off?
Jolene leaned her head back and took another breath. She kicked for a second or two and then went under again. I felt my throat tighten and my peripheral vision narrow. I saw Matthew at four, off the coast of Venezuela, taking one step too many into the crystal water and disappearing under a wave. I felt the dizzying sensation of turning one way to dispense his little sister into the arms of another sister, not much bigger, and turning back to the sea to lift him from its downward pull.
I can’t say exactly what happened next. I seem to remember grabbing Jolene around the fleshy section just below her neck and under her arms, and kicking furiously until we reached shallow water. When I could stand, I pulled Jolene up to a semi-standing position. She sort of walked, leaning her weight against my side, until we reached the sand. She seemed drunk. Her eyes were bloodshot and she was taking noisy, shallow breaths. I left her with one of the other girls and walked the twenty feet to the lifeguard stand where the attendant was sipping bottled water.
“I’m a chaperon,” I said, trying to sound official while at the same time trying to quiet the rushing noise that filled my ears and threw my equilibrium off. “One of the girls from our school swallowed some water out there. Could you come look at her?” That sounded better, I thought, than, “I almost let a child drown.”
The lifeguard fished a slim white kit out of a mesh bag and slung a flotation device over her shoulder (a little late for that). Then she followed me to the spot where Jolene sat huddled on the sand, knees to her chest. The lifeguard took Jolene’s pulse and examined the red threads that filled the whites of her eyes. She declared Jolene to be fine, said that she should just take it easy for the next hour or so, and claimed that the nausea and dizziness would pass. If only the lifeguard had been right.
I sat with Jolene until she felt well enough to walk. Then we headed toward the aviary. I wanted to keep her away from the other water attractions in the park for as long as possible. Maybe we could feed the parrots or scout out the cardinals that were supposed to be abundant here.
It wasn’t long, though, before Jolene began vomiting up water. I found a cement bench that curved around a trio of Sabal palms, and sat down with her. My three guys soon joined us, and I knew it was only a matter of time before Carlie would turn up as well. What was I going to tell her? That I didn’t know Jolene couldn’t swim? That was true, of course, but I was the one who had nagged her into braving the deeper water to get a look at the shark. She would have been perfectly content wading by the shore, batting at the miniature silver jacks and translucent angel fish that happened by.
Instead of Carlie though, it was Mrs. Spencer who rounded the corner, heading our way. By this time, the boys were whining for their turn at the dolphin pool, and Jolene was protesting that she was fine, despite the fact that her face had taken on a dark ashen color and the whites of her eyes were bulging, as though water had somehow settled behind them.
Mrs. Spencer was the science teacher who had arranged this field trip. She had a fluff of close-cropped hair, dyed an unremarkable shade of brown, and a pug nose, the kind you’d expect to see on a young child. It didn’t seem large enough to provide sufficient air for her ample chest or her plus-size body.
Mrs. Spencer wore white sun-screen that was visible from a distance, and a broad-brimmed straw hat. She had on a twill skirt that fell just to her knees and a white cotton shirt with a Peter-Pan collar. Her navy slip-on sneakers had gone out of style a decade ago.
According to Mrs. Spencer, it was time for lunch. She was winding her way through the well-manicured park, gathering up children to meet at a central pavilion. She paused when she got to Jolene.
“You hungry, honey?” she asked, leaning over to smooth out Jolene’s still-damp braids. Jolene shook her head. Then Jolene drew her hand to her mouth, and I was afraid she was going to start vomiting again. I pulled Mrs. Spencer aside and told her Jolene wasn’t feeling well.
“I took her to the lifeguard station,” I said. “The lifeguard told me that Jolene probably took in too much salt water when we were in the shark lagoon. She said Jolene would be fine in an hour or so.”
It was the truth, more or less. It was just lacking nearly all of the significant details. Those details were lodged somewhere in the recesses of my throat. I couldn’t wrench them loose.. I wanted to give voice to words that would explain, excuse, exculpate. Instead I just stood there, digging at an imaginary smudge in the walkway with the tip of my sneaker.
Mrs. Spencer felt Jolene’s moist forehead and then punched some buttons on her cell phone. Before long a balding park attendant pushing an empty wheelchair, stopped in front of us.
“Just in case,” Mrs. Spencer said. The three of them headed toward the first aid center, leaving me alone with my boys.
I plodded through the rest of the day as though I were slogging through mud. We made it to the dolphin pool where Matthew caressed the slick skin of these watery mammals. We floated down a clear tropical river that flowed under a bridge fashioned out of boulders that were large enough to sunbathe on. Matthew and his buddies teased the rays that filled an ankle-deep pool. Then they hid in underwater grottos and pummeled one other with yellow foam pool noodles.
I didn’t see Jolene and Mrs. Spencer again until the bus arrived to take us back to the hotel. Mrs. Spencer said Jolene was feeling better. But the heaviness in my belly that made it impossible for me to eat lunch, hell, impossible even to sip water without bringing up bile, persisted.
At some time during the bus ride, Jolene’s condition worsened. Maybe it was the uneven pitch of the wheels on that stretch of the highway. Maybe it was the smell of sweat and sun-screen that permeated the bus, or the drone of the movie we had already seen.
An ambulance met us at the hotel. I watched from the sidelines as paramedics inserted tubes into Jolene’s nose to administer oxygen, and began an I.V. The paramedic thought Jolene might have aspirated some of the saltwater into her lungs. She would have to be taken to the local hospital for observation. They wheeled Jolene out of the hotel lobby. Carlie went to the hospital with her. Mrs. Spencer stayed with her all night.
I was stationed at the hotel, no role to play in the drama I was sure I was responsible for creating. Instead of pacing the halls of the hospital with Carlie, or performing some other task that I perceived to be necessary, I spent the evening doling out quarters to my overtired threesome, who had planted themselves in the hotel arcade. We stayed there until past eleven, the boys driving imaginary sports cars or killing off computer-generated robots with explosives detonated with the click of a hand-held controller. I leaned against an ancient pinball machine, unable to halt the procession of alternate endings to the events of the afternoon that my uncooperative mind kept conjuring up, one after the other.
By the next morning, Jolene’s parents had arrived to check her out of the hospital. The doctors promised that by Monday she would be back at school. There was no pneumonia, no secondary respiratory infection. Jolene left with no more than a prescription for rest (though I was secretly rooting for swimming lessons as well).
On the bus ride home, I heard Jolene’s friend bragging about how she had saved Jolene’s life. I liked this version of truth better than the one that replayed nonstop in my own head. I shifted in my seat, then folded my pillow in half and propped it between my shoulder and the window. The mid-morning clouds formed flat layers of gray on the horizon. The lull of the bus put me to sleep. I dreamed that I was searching for a doctor to remove a huge pouch of flesh that had formed on my neck. The skin drooped over the right side of my collarbone. It was impossible to hide. It couldn’t be excised, the doctors told me. I screamed–the kind of scream reserved for horror movies and haunted houses. The scream echoed, reverberating out from the swinging doors of my dream hospital. An orderly in an off-color lab coat took hold of my wrist and pushed me back onto the examining table. The bus changed lanes and I woke up.
An hour had passed, maybe more. I turned to see if I could discern Matthew’s head among the rows of exhausted kids. He and Karl were playing a card game I didn’t recognize. Mrs. Spencer was shushing a group of boys who had apparently learned a new curse word. I shifted my attention back to the front of the bus. The cars heading north had their headlights on, signaling oncoming rain. Fat drops would soon fall across the windshield and the bus would make that whooshing sound of tires rubbing against wet pavement.
I curled my legs up on my seat and closed my eyes. I could feel the motion of the water again. I could see the lagoon, too. It wasn’t teeming with tropical fish now. Instead it was dark and still, and the water was turbid as though the shark pool had been filled with a viscous liquid. This dense fluid clung to the skin and hampered forward motion, leaving me with the disturbing feeling of swimming in place. I shivered and opened my eyes, willing the sensation to go away. The bus lurched forward. Outside, the rain slid down the windows and fell onto the steamy pavement. Yet I could still see narrow pinnacles of light between the sharp branches of the wild bougainvillea that sprouted up in the highway median. As the light diffused, it seemed to cast a fuchsia tinge on the shallow puddles that were just beginning to pool beneath the uneven weave of the April sky.