Self-Portait in Freshwater: an excerpt
“Love is not simply a psychic risk but an unabashedly bodily one.” —Julietta Singh, The Breaks
“No living being is without interior liquid motion. We all churn inside.” —Brian Doyle, Joyas Voladoras
lake as body
Here, in the water, amongst a tolerable turbulence, our little bodies rise and fall as wet-rot wood. Where the waves lift us, sand-calloused toes reach down, stretching as far as they can, until they lift off the lake bottom beneath us. The water rises above our heads, and we hover there, between the below and the above, waiting patiently to meet the two again. We are only together, two hands clasped around each other, our eyes scrunched shut in an act of bravery. We feel the water’s movement in our stomachs, the weightless air that rests there, before it rises again to the top of its cavity, and our feet plant themselves weakly against the lake bottom again, the gentle tug of the undertow against our ankles.
Our eyes burst open, as do our mouths which held our breaths in our cheeks, exhaling in time for another wave. However, this wave does not meet us at our feet, does not rise up our thighs and pelvic bones, does not toss us into its fluid space, but instead, it arrives on the down, the wave break meets us at the chest, a continuous force against us. The wave pushes us down. Our backs make a unanimous, silent smack against the bottom of the lake, and now, there is a great weight atop us. It’s all wrong; our eyes aren’t closed, our cheeks are empty, and I’ve lost my cousin’s hand. I no longer have the privilege of experiencing that anywhere space, and instead, am burdened with knowing exactly where I am. Underneath.
Beneath that porous barrier between water and air, my eyes watch the light catch the ripples. The animacy of the waves continue without my ability to enjoy them, it’s mocking passage over our floating bodies. In memory, that line is within reach, if only I could move my arm, reach out, grab onto the phenomenal above, that I might be able to pull myself up into that great air. In the moment, that distance is an irrevocable impossibility. I am leagues below and the panic forces my body stiff. I am not against the bottom, and I am not rising to the top. All I am is between, alone, unaware of my cousin’s similarly trapped body next to mine. There is a gentle tug, the undertow’s return, that begins to pull my body out and away.
Two sisters-who-are-also-mothers must have many eyes in order to watch many things. They watch their youngests, the holes in the sand, the other beachgoers. They note how few there are. They watch the storm clouds, easily fifty miles north, count lightning strikes and thunderclaps. In the summer, thunderstorms are as casually part of the day as sun, as breeze, as ice cream, as beach towels. They watch the ways the storm reaches us here, jovial waves that applaud against the shore.
Having many eyes in order to watch many things means that there are eyeless moments, specks of time that live in the unseen. And they are truly just moments, they will say to themselves. It was just a second. Together, their eyes rest on the wave remnants to find no children among them. They are both athletes and they trust their blood. They wait to see the rising head, the outstretched arm, hand-made-into-blade that cuts the water and pushes. When it does not come, they trust in their own bodies, the thighs that launch them forward, the feet that steady against the shifting sand, the arms reaching out, the hands cupped under the armpits of the cousins, the triceps that lift and pull, the throats that scream.
Beneath them, on land, their children sputter and spit and take gulps of air. Tears they cannot explain well in their eyes and, finding usefulness of their arms again, they reach for their mothers. The sisters hold onto their water-children, let them drip on their dry, sun-taut skin. They are grateful to hold them this way. The sisters won’t know until later that they are both in the same moment and the same memory, not just of their own childhood summers, but of the same one in particular, on a lake with a bay, and them both watching a girl pass beneath a speedboat which did not see her, which would not see her, how she swam maybe only twenty feet ahead of the sisters. They tell the story differently, as sisters tend to do. One swears she saw the body, the tendrils of its shredded muscle, that it still haunts her, floats in the corner of vision. The other swears they did not, and old news clippings reported a body not found for many days. The two sisters began recording their ages no longer in numbers, but in time since the accident, measured their own growth against that of the boat driver’s mistake, his inevitable conviction, the swears and sorrows.
Now as mothers, when they explained the almost-drowning of their children to their husbands, one of the sisters met her husband’s eyes and thought only of her mother-in-law’s father. She remembered how her mother-in-law told the story, so unexpected, as they washed and cut summer vegetables, over the sink, my mother’s own hands beneath the water. Her mother-in-law told her how her father tossed her and her brothers into the waves, and how they buoyed back to the top, over and over again, laughing and giggling, and how he tossed her last, because she was the youngest, and when she rose again to the top of the water, she found her father no longer standing there. The brothers said they tried to pull him back up, but he pushed them away, afraid they would slip under with him, how her mother screamed from the shore, never once having stepped foot into the lake out of her own fear, and the mother-in-law tells her daughter-in-law that they never found the body, that her mother never took them to the beach after that, and she has never taken herself either. The daughter-in-law said nothing, watched her husband and two sons play in the yard through the window above the sink, and was not be able to say between the two of them, she or her husband, who deserved to drown and who deserved to stand on that shore, and today, having just pulled her eldest son from the lake and having her husband tell her how stupid she is for having almost killed their son, she remembered that it’s all the same lake, the same body of water, the same graveyard that holds her mother-in-law’s father, the girl-that-could-have-been-her-sister, and how today, for a moment, it held her son.
The sister/mother/daughter-in-law/wife will find this memory reach her again, on a wedding anniversary years from now, from then, and the lake in October will be different, so much calmer and colder. She will stand on that same shore where she pulled her son out of the water and watched his little body twitch back into life. Harsh winds at her front, harsh words at her back, she gently allows her mind to return to that moment. Truthfully, her son had not been deep beneath the waves, only maybe a few feet, so much so that when she reached for him in the water, she was startled to see him looking up at her, at the sky, as if he were only resting there, in the phenomenal below. He looked so peaceful. He has needed her saving so few times since then, it has almost become a fond memory for her now. She imagines her own body resting there, just beneath the water line, and wonders who would save her, and if they did, would she reach back? Or would she push them away?
lake as cycle
On a peninsula, the lake is all around you. When you drive across, the lake is as much in front of you, as it is in your rear view.
When my grandmother returns to her childhood lakeside town, she becomes its documentarian. She takes hundreds of photos, preserving the beach as it is in that moment, in that year. She is watching her town become less, watching the water eat away at the shoreline, crawl its way up the bluff. She sends these photos to me, and they arrive in my email inbox a few times a year, her own descriptions of them eroding away over time.
When you were younger, the beach used to go out about another ten feet here
look where the waterline is!
just locations and dates
just photos, uncategorized pieces of a larger ecological puzzle we are both sorting out.
These photos arrive to me regardless of my distance to the lake, regardless of my distance to my grandmother. They just keep coming, cresting over each other.
In the summer of 2019, her town featured a series of floods, due to unexpectedly high water levels that season and a lack of natural barriers that had dispersed over the years. My grandmother sent me photos of the water resting just over the wake walls at the marina and videos of small, choppy waves rolling down the typically manicured walkways between the upscale beach homes. In a separate exchange, she sent me a photo of herself, standing as close as she could to the lighthouse pier, blocked off due to public safety. The sky was grey, and she was wearing her late-husband’s waders, the lake at her knees. Behind her, the lighthouse rose straight out of the lake, and beyond that, just water, a chilling, unrelenting vastness of space, something impossible to hold onto in a photo like this. In the same email, she attached a photo from perhaps a decade earlier, standing in nearly the same spot, with her husband, the pair of them comfortably on the dry path that led down to the pier. They were standing in khaki shorts and sun hats, beaming. In the body of the email, she has only written the water will return. I found her supposed optimism off putting, that I wrote off as my own anger of this loss of place. Here was my grandmother, in the town of her birth, watching it become not just a lakeside town, but a town that was now a part of that lake, more than it had ever been, the lake quite literally arriving at the doors of homes, seeping its way into memories. I remember thinking it seemed like the water would not return to its prescribed border, that it was here to take away this town, to consume it, that we would be the ones returning to the water, no foundations to hold steady against it.
But ultimately my grandmother was correct. Before the next spring, with help of the local university and the Army Corp of Engineers, the town built back natural flood and erosion barriers, which protected against two more years of record high water levels. And in spring 2022, according to a projected evening-out of lake levels, the barriers came down, the current levels a record twenty-eight inches below where they had been the past few years.
What’s been washed away cannot be returned. My grandmother still sends me photos of the water arriving at the bluff, where previously the brittle sand grasses had given way to many more feet of fine, brilliant sand. But now the town and lake sit beside each other, enmeshed together now only in all the ways they had been before.
Water exists in a cycle. There is no beginning to water. You cannot trace it back to its origins. You cannot swim your way to its end. You can only enter, wherever you have happened to arrive at it, and float the way of its pleasure, until you must leave it again
lake as power of attorney
We perform family at the mouth, where river meets bay. This is a hand-me-down memory, a borrowed grief, from the first time. We spread my grandfather’s ashes at sunset, watching for that blood-pink sun to sink deep into the watercolor horizon, a pocket hem between water and sky. In the morning, my mother and her two sisters complete an open water swim, following the cup of the bay, with the shoreline first to their right, and then to their left. They swim in their father’s waters, in a bay named for a mother. Their own mother and stepmother, now ex-wife and widow, sit on the bluff and watch their heads and shoulders and arms and legs work against the stillness. They themselves are both swimmers, and they comment on the sisters’ forms, recognize them from their strokes, the way they move themselves through morning.
Upon completion of the swim, the five of them hike their swimmer bodies back to camp, laugh with the chickadees, and cook breakfast over the remnants of last night’s fire, all before anyone else is awake.
when my mother’s father died, she spread his ashes here
when my mother’s stepfather died, she spread his ashes here
when my mother’s stepmother died, she spread her ashes here
when my mother’s mother dies, she will spread her ashes here
when my mother dies, I will spread her ashes here
when I die, I will swim among my family’s waters
I try to return to a body of water annually, somewhere where I can submerge my body completely. In Pittsburgh—where I live—this requires making plans. Pittsburgh has three rivers, but with decades of pollution and combined sewage overflow, only the dead swim there.
Bonnie and I shared this desire—after the city pools closed the minute Labor Day arrived, we took each other to different swimming holes on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. We skipped out of the city after a friend’s wedding celebration—like chasing down one pleasure with another—and I took them to a nearby lake trail to go skinny dipping. After walking a short distance into the forest and along the lake, I lit a candle and Bonnie peeled a mandarin orange for us to share. We swam out naked into the night, algae thickening the water and lightly fingering our skin. We floated in the center of the lake, briefly disoriented as if returning from a reverie, and relieved to see our one candle flickering at shore.
Right before the weather made it too cold to swim, Bonnie and I went to Lake Erie, a two-hour drive north. With depth and enormity, Lake Erie more closely resembled an ocean. We wanted to camp by the water, but by the time we got to the campground, it was dark and the staff at the campground said it was too windy to set up camp.
“I’ve already had to rescue two tents that toppled over with people inside them,” he said, his arm draped theatrically over the roof of the golf cart. “You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
The thought of even assembling a tent at this point felt arduous, so we got a motel room and decided to try again tomorrow.
This year I promised myself I would take more risks, be more courageous. I mentioned this to a friend as we were on a hike and she said, “This is a theme of yours,” and when I said, “What do you mean?” she responded, “You’ve said this to me before. That you wanted to be more courageous.” Only later did I realize I had the same ambitions the year before.
It’s just hard to know what being courageous really looks like. I tend to be wishywashy, indecisive about my own desires. “Robustness” is a word that comes to mind—a word that does not describe my habit of thought. My thoughts are nonlinear and inchoate, careening between fixation like picking a scab and slipperiness, thoughts leaving as soon as they arrive. I could attribute it to my undiagnosed ADHD or my diagnosed and medicated anxiety, but regardless, without a robust mind, I feel ill-equipped to make decisions.
What happens when I overthink my decisions is that they collapse into a uniform layer of silt on the field that is my life—be it the decision to move to a new city or fold the laundry that is rumpled on my bed, all take equal priority. And the moment I do become decisive, what underlies it is fear. The kind of fear that my mother instilled in me—fear of losing my stable material conditions, of being left to fend on my own. The logic is quite simple actually: if I don’t fold my laundry, I will live in squalor, and if I live in squalor, I will be evicted and abandoned by the people who love me.
I have historically associated impulsiveness and courage as going hand in hand. Who has time to think through a list of fears when you are acting from impulse? More specifically, I’ve believed that impulse can reveal what desires arose when fear wasn’t present.
But I have doubts about how impulsive my impulses actually are. The most impulsive decisions I made in the last five years were often the surfacing of latent desires, like when I adopted my dog Gordo after wanting a dog for over a year. Or when I promised myself I would take myself seriously as a writer after suppressing this desire for a lifetime. In other words, these decisions are not so random as they are incremental. In other words, the dam was bound to burst.
I grew up going to the ocean, to the Gulf of Mexico, a couple hours south of Auburn, Alabama. My family took our car down, my sibling and I in the back seat, arguing over a GameBoy. The ocean made children of all of us. Even my quite serious dad became a child—his face filled with a joyful surprise as a wave toppled into him. My mom wasn’t a strong swimmer, so she usually chose to stand closer to the shore, but she always got in the water.
Sometimes I went with friends. My friend Janine’s aunt and uncle owned a house a mile from a beach in Gulf Shores, and Janine invited me and two other girls to come. We must have been barely high schoolers then, 14-years-old, summers still untamed, summers before SAT tests and ACT tests and sleep-deprivation. Janine’s dad drove us—Janine, me, Joanna, and Mirtha—and gave us a freedom that was unrecognizable to me.
We were on the beach at all hours of the day. During the daytime, we would lie in the sun in bathing suits, and in the evenings wrap ourselves in blankets and look at the stars.
One evening, Janine’s dad woke us to take turns nighttime fishing for speckled trout. Because his boat was small, we could only go one at a time. When it was my turn to wake up, I sat in the back of the boat, where I was handed a spear. “Look for quick spurts of movement,” he said. “Then slice through the water perpendicularly.” After that, we were silent, gliding slowly through the water. A single light from a headlamp beamed onto the water, and I watched, murky and gray, algae lacing its strands like tousled hair. It felt astonishing that while I slept, this other world existed. The silence continued, and every now and then, a movement. When I finally pushed my spear through the water, I hit something. It wasn’t a trout or a fish. Janine’s dad shined the light where I pierced something, and I saw a stingray, small but distinctly sheet-like, and a cloud of what looked like its blood. I knew I injured the creature, if not killing it. I felt like crying. Janine’s dad didn’t know how to respond to what happened, and I ended up doing my best to not let my friends see how much this fazed me.
Maybe back then I asked God for forgiveness, back when I still believed in God, but I’m not sure. What I do remember was I was scared, scared that this memory would haunt me, the dark water, the bleeding stingray, sticky and unforgiving.
In college, I was in a Victorian literature class, where we were discussing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. You can see by the amount of flannel and LL Bean around the table that my classmates were all outdoorsy types, the type of person who didn’t have to buy camping gear for their orientation trip. Some students even chose to go to our school because of the opportunities to be outside. Before I moved to Maine for college, I had never camped before.
Cordelia was telling the class about a mountaineering trip with her dad. I knew Cordelia as the white girl who I shared a campus mailbox with, who always received more mail than I did. When we finally met in this class junior year, I remember feeling more charmed by the serendipity than Cordelia did. “What I realized was, the closer you are to death, the closer you are to life,” she said, voice placid. Everyone around the table nodded, like they understood this experience. Her words were pretty and I could feel myself being seduced by them, along with everyone else in the room.
My family never had any real desire to engage in risky recreational activity. We never white-water rafted or skied or even hiked. The most intimate relationship I had with the land was in the forest behind my childhood home, where my brother and I would play and where burs would hook their teeth on our clothes, and in my parents’ garden, a place of labor and nourishment. My relationship with land was not one that was antagonistic, nor was it about self-enlightenment.
A more accurate statement would be that my family never engaged in any kind of risk. We played it safe. Living paycheck to paycheck, with no room for mistakes or foolhardiness, was risk enough for them. This learned fearfulness had me hang drying my clothes my entire first year of college, refusing to pay the $1.25 to use the dryer.
The irony of it all would come much later. The going to a school with a billion dollar endowment, the sitting in a room of primarily white people, the reading a book about an English man going to Africa to partake in the colonial ivory trade, the arguing about whether Conrad was racist or not. In the classroom, I’m supposed to forget that the night before, I served tofu steak at the dining hall to the girl sitting next to me, for my 20-hour-a-week work-study. In the classroom, we focused only on the life of the mind.
Choosing risk because your life is absent of it; now that can be an expensive kind of voyeurism. It’s living a life so full of ease that you need to spend money to create an artificial kind of risk, just to feel “closer to life.” It is to engage in risk without really engaging with risk.
After the shootings in Atlanta where six Asian women were killed, I spoke to my mom on the phone. We had spoken about the rise in anti-Asian violence–Asians scapegoated for a global pandemic–but this was different. “Try to spend less time going to things,” my mom said vaguely. A funny proposition: what am I supposed to do, suspend my life completely? I told her I would be careful.
What I wish I could say to her is that risk is intrinsic to the lived experience of poor people of color in America, it is intrinsic to femmes of color, queer women of color, trans women of color. When risk is so ordinary, it can be easy to forget that to feel at risk is not normal. The term “at risk youth” is funny, with even the slightest examination—the way this risk is about the risk of academic failure, rather than the risk of homelessness, or of malnutrition, or of death.
Sometimes, I think about my parents’ decision to leave China, shortly before I was born. They were the first in their families to leave, to travel abroad. To board an airplane. Move to Finland, of all countries, where no one looks like them or speaks their language. But they never considered or described this decision as risky, or even courageous, the positive spin. They just considered it exactly as is.
I still take my mom’s advice seriously, in my own way. I acquire a tiny pink pepper spray for my keychain, and I stop going on walks with noise-canceling headphones.
And yet it is hard for me to square, within myself, a real desire to take more risks, to not feel so certain of the outcomes produced by my actions. It’s the desire to unlearn my tendencies towards practicality, and lean into a different kind of intuition—a kind that feels unwieldy and hot to the touch.
We took turns captaining the float, a giant duck named Big Baby; I first went on top of Big Baby as Bonnie steered him through the waves. Our smiles were so wide, I was like a child again as I held Big Baby tightly around his bobbing head. You can’t see the end of the horizon at Lake Erie, and it was my first time at a lake this big. The deception—that the water would go on and on and on—lured you in, even as the water smelled nothing like salt. After resting in the sun and smoking a sandy joint, I pulled Bonnie and Big Baby back into the water. I wanted to take a turn captaining. As I held onto Big Baby, Bonnie began singing a song in Chinese, asking me if I recognized it. I didn’t, but their singing made me giddy. They said it was a song from when they were a child.
It was then that I realized my feet couldn’t reach the bottom, and I felt it—fear, a caress inside of me. I noticed us getting closer and closer to a row of jagged rocks farther down the shore, getting pushed farther and farther away from our tent. I told Bonnie, “We’re getting really close to those rocks!”
No matter how hard I was kicking my feet, we weren’t getting closer to shore. I yelled to Bonnie, “I’m struggling to swim with Big Baby! I’m going to let go!”
“Okay!” They yelled back.
Making a quick decision, I told Bonnie that I was going to swim towards the rocks. We were too far from the sandy part of the beach, and the waves were too strong to swim through. Conserving my strength became the most urgent task. I knew Bonnie was a strong swimmer, but as I started to swim, I turned back to see them struggling to swim and hold onto Big Baby, unwieldy and shockingly yellow against the blue sky.
When Bonnie said they were letting go of Big Baby, I was relieved. It was getting too hard to hold onto Big Baby and swim to shore. When I’m inside my head, my body feels translucent, as ephemeral as my thoughts; but here in this water, no, my body was heavy, it had mass.
At shore, I grabbed hold of a rock, hugging it with both arms, before hoisting myself upward. The surface under my fingers and my feet was slimy, like a creature excreting toxins. It was easier to be on all fours, but twice, the waves pushed me downward. Images of my head cracking open against a rock rose, then images of Bonnie.
But once I finally got on my bearings and could stand upright, Bonnie was also upright, and my “be careful” was met with “I’m okay.”
We stood in the sand and hugged; I was breathing in relief, gulping down the air. We stood and watched Big Baby become more and more small, a cartoon speck. As we walked back to the tent, two older women asked us, “Are you girls okay?”
We nodded, though I wasn’t completely sure what we were.
We returned to the car, and I sat with my feet dangling out the passenger door as Bonnie cleaned my scratches. They asked me to read aloud to them a menu that was strewn in the car as they applied alcohol.
A shadow from the roof of the car casted over their face as they bent over my bruised hips, and they were apologizing, for not having as many scratches as I did. Only I was apologizing too, “I wish I didn’t want us to go back into the water” and “I’m so sorry we lost Big Baby.” We both shook our heads, refusing the terms of the apologies.
When we think back to this time at Lake Erie, we joke about how it advanced our relationship by many years. On the drive home to Pittsburgh, we realized how in the water, there was no way we were going to be able to help each other without potentially hurting ourselves. I thought about my own body again, slippery in the water, shapeless, and how the joys of being in water collided with the dangers.
As a child, we lived on a steep hill, where I rode my Razor scooter up and down. When I skidded my knee, my mom yelled at me, furious at my carelessness. This memory merges with other childhood memories of my mom’s anger—of breaking a bowl, of losing my bag at an amusement park; and now into my adulthood, her anger (with a side of grief) at my queerness. Whereas I am trying to be less risk averse and more courageous, my mom wants me to move with more care, more safety. “Your path will narrow if you take the wrong steps,” she says to me, over and over again on the phone. Her vision of how to live a life—more specifically, my life—continues to drift farther and farther away from my vision of how to live my life.
These days, I imagine myself, the size of a coin, floating, between two hands, cupping the water. The water continues to hold me, even when I cannot hold myself.
Coby-Dillon English (he/she/they) is a writer from the Great Lakes. A member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, they currently are an MFA fiction student and Henry Hoyns Fellow at the University of Virginia, where they teach creative writing and serve as the nonfiction editor for Meridian. Their work can be found/is forthcoming in Salt Hill Journal, Bellingham Review, and LitHub.
Elina Zhang is an Asian-American writer and organizer based in Pittsburgh, PA, where she received a Creative Nonfiction Writing MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. She was a 2023 Roots. Words. Wounds Fellow and a 2022 Periplus Fellow. She is also a member of the JADED Asian American artists collective.