The Diving Board by Stephanie Parent

Originally published in the Red Skies anthology by Splintered Disorder Press.

Every evening after midnight, summer of 2020, strangest summer of my life, I heard it: the sound of the diving board rebounding, hopeful and hollow, rising and falling, promising an ice princess plunge or the smack of a belly flop. The pool was half a block from my childhood home in Baltimore, Maryland – it was the pool where my six and seven-year-old self spent hours pretending to be a mermaid, somersaulting through the chlorinated depths with a grace I could never manage on dry land. Occasionally I attempted a jump from that diving board; though it took just one belly flop to lose the courage to ever dive from it again.

When I left Baltimore for Los Angeles in my twenties, when I traded humid heat hanging above water edged with concrete for an ocean and a salt-tinged breeze, I never thought I’d be back here again. I never thought a tiny spike-edged virus could make the world stop, either. But the unexpected invaded, small and sinister, and I jumped on a plane, sure the airlines were about to close and I’d be trapped, jobless, in a one-bedroom apartment I could barely afford.

So I spent that summer, now in my thirties, back home with my parents, waiting for the night to descend so I could feel alone for just an hour or two. Waiting for the sound of the diving board to flip, flop like those nerves you feel in your stomach when you’re attempting something significant, something real. When you’re a kid jumping off a diving board for the first time, or a twenty-something flying across the country with every possession that means something to you stuffed in your suitcase.

In 2020 the neighborhood pool had social distancing rules, limited capacity, strict sign up times. My parents followed their typical patterns: my dad, healthy but solitary, signed up for a morning lap swim a few times a week. My mom, who spent most of her days shifting between the computer and the TV, made a few comments about how she ought to get down to the pool before it closed but never did. And me? I never considered going – why would I want a closer reminder of those childhood summers when I dreamed of escape, of diving below the surface of the water and emerging with a fish’s tail or the flower-strewn hair of a naiad? Reminders of what could never be.

After midnight came the reverberation of the diving board, the laughter of beer-boldened voices drifting through my window. At least one of them must have been a lifeguard, holder of the keys, and so they all gathered in the dark, young and invincible and unafraid of a tiny spike-edged invader, lithe bodies leaping off the diving board beneath the silver moon.

Did teenagers do this when I was in high school, living in this house and wondering what I might become? If they did, I never heard them; I went to sleep earlier then. I was the type who’d never learned how to swan dive into the water, who stood on the sidelines and watched, who thought her own talents – writing, playing piano, earning good grades – were less valuable than the beauty and boldness she saw in others. So many years waiting, wishing, lurking beneath the surface for as long as I could hold my breath.

It wasn’t until I flew across the country to the City of Angels, until I’d fled from my parents and their expectations and examples of the straight and narrow, that it all happened. Over years it happened, but looking back, it seems to have taken place all at once:

Exploring a city of candy cottages ringed by orange trees, boutiques full of dresses like night-blooming orchids, canyons where the Santa Anas stirred flames every fall and beaches where the saltwater slipped between my toes. Falling in love, curling into the warmth of one man’s chest beside me, and waking one morning to find my bed cold. Diving in till I nearly drowned, savoring the sting of salt water in my lungs, my throat, and the gasp of air that told me I was alive.

All of this happened, it really did; but back here, in the white wooden house where I grew up, it seems like a dream, like voices half-heard through the window on a moonlit night. Like the flip of a diving board over dry land – up, up, up, and then, inevitably and always, the slow sink back to earth.

About The Author

Stephanie Parent is a graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC. Her poetry has been nominated for a Rhysling Award and Best of the Net.

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