The Night Swimmer
Tommy Carver’s son liked to play dress up. His mother said it was escapist, his father said it was effeminate, but when the boy was old enough to become aware of his own emotions and desires, he realized it was distinctly different. It was not effeminate, as there was no kind of sexuality, no gender, related to the act, and it certainly was not escapist. He never put on clothes to become other people, he put them on to become himself. With his friends, the boy was a teenager, he talked about sports and girls, with his teachers, he was a student and talked about work, and with his parents he was silent, and didn’t talk at all. But when he was alone, when he was “by himself,” that was when he ceased to exist entirely. He felt uncomfortable in his own head, was acutely aware that most of his thoughts and emotions were not his own, meant very little to him. And so he dressed up. He dressed up because it defined who he was not. He was not a man who wore a tie and bowler. Nor was he the office secretary who cared about lipstick colors and typewriter cartridges, nor was he his father with his white button up shirts and stiff belts with the big buckles that could leave red welts in their wake. He was none of these people. And he took comfort in that.
When his mother died he kept her dress. He kept her hat and purse and two pairs of stockings and shoes, but his father never found those because they fit neatly into a little box under his bed. The dress however, he hung in his closet next to his one nice jacket, and so his father found it. It was around this time that the boy started leaving home at night. Tommy Carver’s son did not like to be in the house when his father was asleep. It made him nervous. It made him feel so alone that it was better to be out on the streets in the hot air feeling the streetlights and watching the cars trundle slowly by on the elevated highway than to stay inside. So Tommy Carver’s son walked. He walked and watched and listened to the world outside of himself and tried very hard not to think about anything at all. Sometimes he tried to think about breathing, to make every breath a very conscious choice. He had seen this once on the television as a kind of meditation device, but he never had much luck with it. As soon as he thought about breath he began to think about himself, and how he breathed and how sometimes his nose would make this tiny high-pitched whining noise when he breathed in, and he hated that. He often wondered what that annoying noise was until he realized that it was coming from himself and then he would have to hold his breath for a good five counts before he could go on again.
He couldn’t say exactly when it happened, or even why, but one of these nights he began thinking a lot about himself. This time the breathing and his shoes slapping on the sidewalk and the way all of his thoughts were actual sentences said out loud in his head made everything impossible. So he rang a doorbell. He was barely aware of the action until the shrill vibrating sound escaped from under his finger. The boy started back from the building and hurried across the street, waiting for some agitated wife or mopey bachelor to come tearing out into the street to catch the offender and hit him across the face, but nothing stirred. No light disturbed the brownstone’s dark facade. And so the boy decided what to do next. It didn’t take long.
The living room was empty. The dining room was empty. The bedroom was empty and black except for the orange of the streetlight through the window. In the dining room the forks and knives and spoons were separated into sets of ten. The closets were stuffed from back to front, spilling over with discarded baby clothes, school projects, ancient plastic bags. All of the hidden treasures, all of the objects too important to dispose of and too mundane to display. There was a child’s room, it’s pink paint much out-grown, now covered in clothes and papers, and post-it notes that said “read ch. 25, underline king’s” or “Sukie.” The boy was not interested in this room. He headed straight for the coat closet in the hallway. There he put on a jacket with grey lapels, perhaps a bit large, and a woman’s hat made of fake fur. He chose a black umbrella and a small shoulder bag that had a ticket stub for the ten o’clock movie crumpled on the inside. In the bathroom he put on some lipstick, some powder. He brushed his hair. He marveled at the tiny pin that depicted a dog chasing after a jeweled butterfly. When he was done scrutinizing the family photographs of Christmas vacations and school recitals and one particularly strange and hysterical occasion when the baby had taken it upon himself to entertain the company by pretending to smoke one of mommy’s cigarettes, the boy carefully undressed. He returned everything to its place— except the hat, which he laid on the neatly folded bed. Returning to the bathroom, he turned on the tap and watched the hot water fill the tub. He carefully arranged all of his own clothes in the order he wanted them until he stood, naked, and bare. When the bath was full, he lifted one foot and then the other, and lowered himself down into the warm water. The powder was washed from his face, the lipstick drained away in a swirl of red mist, and his thoughts turned to swimming. Alone with himself in a pool of night, moon on the water, steam in the air. His mind drifted under the current, and he felt clean.
When he arose from the tub, everything was bright. He put on his clothes, one piece at a time, and for a little while, he thought of nothing. He did not drain the tub.
Tommy Carver’s son began anew. He had found a ritual and kept to it almost as religiously as his father kept to whiskey. He rang doorbells and waited in shadows, he even enjoyed those times when he had to run down the street, out of the light, away from the barking neighbors or wild dogs, and the only thing he could hear was the blood pounding in his heart and his head rushing forward into the darkness. He never took from the houses he entered. He only observed. He thought of himself as a needed presence. He observed for people. He appreciated the items that needed appreciation, he traced the faces of the dead in ancient picture frames, he cooed over baby’s first shoes, and marveled over son’s best trophies. He drew further into himself. Each pair of shoes, each knotted tie, black bowler swimming up out of the depths of the mirror, glinting cufflinks in the faint light from the lamp, reminded him of himself. He was a salmon in the river, a fisherman for humanity. And every night, alone and naked in a different bathtub, he was a swimmer. He was nothing at all and everything at once.
Tommy Carver’s son entered the small apartment some time in the fall. On the bedside table there were two books, one self-help, one picture-oriented, and written on the flyleaf was a simple note that explained friendship and congratulations and was addressed to Jon from Richard. The closet was hung with ties and suits in different colors and the mantelpiece held a photograph of two smiling boys and a dog. The refrigerator might as well have been empty. There were silver pens lined up in a row on the desk, but nothing was written on the note pad. The carpet felt brand new under the boy’s feet. As if no one had really been living there. The whole place felt strange, dead somehow.
The bathroom was black and windowless. Poor. The boy found a candle under the sink next to a box of matches, and put it on a small shelf. He lit it carefully, as if saying a prayer. He had just finished running the bath and was about to undress when the hallway light flicked on. It seemed to spring upon the darkness, freezing him where he stood. He blew out the candle and looked around the room, but the walls were flat and bare and no other doors presented themselves. Dumbstruck, the hallway light burst in on him to reveal a man, a briefcase, standing in the doorway. Neither shadow spoke. They could not quite fumble through what their desperate brains were trying to send them. Then the man moved forward, as if to hug the tiny figure, and the boy sprang out, past his body in the doorway and ran down the hall. The man turned after him, reaching, but heard the front door slam before he could even get to it. Its blank wood separated his home from the outside world.
And yet Tommy Carver’s son ran. He ran on mechanical legs, imagining he would be beaten until he was bent and broken like a forgotten cigarette, tobacco spilling from its sides. He ran down hill, towards the river, to the boardwalk that looked out across the black expanse of the water. Before he understood his safety, he found himself crumpled on the ground, breathing hard hot breath into his hands and tasting salt on his lips. He gulped the air, drowning in it.
It was a long time before he could look up. His eyes burned and the small pool of light from the streetlamp above him flickered in and out of solidity. There were glimmers on the water. The city’s buildings reflected in its rippling depths. He rocked himself slowly back and forth on the cold cement. And then, carefully, he pulled himself up. He took off his shoes. And then his pants. His shirt and socks and underwear until he stood, completely naked, his skin glinting in the night air. He stepped towards the iron railing that separated the walkway from the water’s edge. He climbed over it and stood suspended on the lip of concrete above the blackness. He looked out at the city and the lights and the water. And then he closed his eyes.
The streetlamp flickered once, black, above the strip of boardwalk and then slowly rippled back into light once more.