The Unknown Knowns
A excerpt from a novel by Jeffrey Rotter, Hunter MFA Fiction 2006
(Simon and Schuster/Scribner, March 2009)
The obvious way to describe water is with adjectives. People like to say water is murky or dappled or turbulent or calm. They call it brackish, crystalline, emerald, white. Deep, shallow, filmy, or unfathomable. But all those adjectives don’t even come close to describing water like it really is. They just float across the surface, like dead leaves or algae.
You could also try describing water with action verbs. You could say it rushes, or pours, or drips. You could also say it seeps, for instance. Water can boil or it can freeze or it can steam. But it doesn’t matter how many verbs you throw at the water; they don’t stick either. Trying to describe water by what it does is kind of like telling a story by throwing a book at your wife.
Another way people sometimes describe water is in context. I’ll give you an example: a man walks by making water noises. His tube socks are drenched and they’re going squish, squish, squish. With every step he takes: squish, squish. But when you ask the guy if he wants a dry pair — you have the socks right there in your hand; you even offer them to him — he shakes his head no. And that’s when you hear it: you hear the fluid slosh inside his skull like milk in a coconut. And you think: this isn’t a man; this is something else entirely.
Here’s another example of describing water in context. A little kid jumps out of a swimming pool. His skin is red and raw. He’s crying without making a sound. Something bad has been done to the water.
Or here’s an even better example of water in context: Two women go over a waterfall in a big bucket. The water is so crazy all around them that no one can hear them screaming, not even the women themselves. An ambulance backs up to the edge of the water. The lights are insistent, swirling. They paint the mountain red, and to look at them makes you feel like you don’t have enough pockets to put your hands in.
There are probably other examples that I’m sure you could come up with. But here’s the one I keep coming back to, the one that’s relevant to my present circumstance. A guy jumps into a swimming pool, pointing his toes to mitigate the splash. Water knifes up inside his swim trunks, it pinches his nipples. He blows bubbles through his nose to prevent the water from entering his skull. The water floods his thinning hair and his body hangs limp in the pool light. The body hangs limp while the guy thinks about water.
That guy is me. I am the guy in the water thinking about water.
More context. My name is Jim Rath. I was born in Columbia, South Carolina, where I grew to my current, completely uninspiring height of five foot six. Five years ago, for reasons that were obscure at the time, even to me, I moved to Colorado Springs. I am currently age 38, though that number seems to be changing rapidly and time hasn’t been especially friendly to me. I’m hairy-armed and cowering, a guy you’d expect to see squatting by a campfire just a few weeks before the beginning of history. People say I have a high forehead, but I know what that means. I’m losing my hair. No great loss; I was never all that handsome or brave anyway. And my balding caveman looks never mattered much when I was standing underwater.
It was after hours in the hotel pool at a Colorado Springs Hilton. The month was August but the water felt more like March or April. I descended, eyes closed behind my scuba mask, until I felt the grout and the grit of the tile floor against the balls of my feet. The pockets of my Jams were lined with lead fishing weights to keep me from floating away. I drew down the intake of the snorkel so it would barely breach the water. My presence would be difficult if not impossible to detect from above. Then I opened my eyes and described what I saw through the lens of my diving mask, writing everything down in a waterproof notepad.
My goal was a thorough understanding of water. But not on a chemical level. Not in any way that you could test. That wasn’t of any interest to me. I had more consequential interests. I wanted to know why the water is always calling to us, why it resents us. Where do we belong in relation to it? I asked. What is the water hiding down there? I was in the pool to ask the hard probing questions that no one else would ask. Because I figured out some time ago that the truest and most singular way to know the water is by getting right in it. By reaching in with bare hands and pulling out a couple of its slippery monsters. Holding them up to the light to watch them gasp and squirm. They have so many teeth, so many and so elegantly tined that you can’t even feel them when they bite.