Deadman’s Float

6. Ruhe-Schoen_deadman's float

Janet Ruhe-Schoen

Deadman’s Float

Arms rigid in front of us, hands clutching
tombstone-shaped floatboards, faces in water,
we tried not to let the burning chlorine
of the Jewish Community Center pool in.

Poolside, our mothers chatted complacently,
observing our Deadman’s Float. Dennis
towered over us. “Breathe.” I twisted my neck,
an ear, half a mouth, one nostril out.

“Exhale. Inhale. Kick.” We churned ahead into
deep water. “Breathe. Kick. No splashing!” It was all
foreplay working up to sex: the Australian Crawl.
But I didn’t want to crawl, I wanted to fly.

“Deadman!” I yelled. We flung away the floatboards.
We sank. Our mothers leaped in. Each grabbed
the child that came to hand first. I was the last
to be saved. It was during my long blue moments

on the bottom of the pool that I grew a mermaid’s tail.
My mother brought me home, fed me chicken soup,
yet I continually pined for the sea. Finally, the family
was forced to drive me to Atlantic City, fortify me

with saltwater taffy, then let me go. I swam toward Europe
in a swathe of sunlight, flanked on either side
by silver dolphins. Above me flew my heralds, the seabirds.
When I grew tired of the surface, I explored the worlds

beneath. In one world, all the bottles with
messages in them tossed upon the waves
from the time the history of bottles began.
I read every message in every language.

In other worlds, I found skulls and gold coins,
intricate statues precious metals,
gemstones, and flat fishes forever in profile,
looking up at me with amber eyes.

When the weight of Ocean grew too much, I rose
to the surface and floated in daylight. Or in darkness
under small distant stars. Sometimes
in storms I floated on the wakes of foundering

ships from all times and nations: clippers,
steamers, privateers, galleys. By the time
I reached Europe, I was 21 years old, fluent
in all the Romance languages, and I had
a definite fashion flair. I rarely look back.


Janet Ruhe-Schoen is the author of 4 books of biography, most recently Champions of Oneness: Louis Gregory and His Shining Circle. She’s had poetry, fiction and essays published in small magazines and has worked as a journalist for newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and in Chile. Currently she is working on a novel and making collages that she considers visual poems.

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