When Arlene and Jackson finally arrived at the bar, Gavin was hollering at the Braves game on one of the televisions while Arlene’s friend, Ellie, sat across from him, staring blankly at her smart phone. There was already an empty cocktail glass in front of her. Her face brightened when she saw the two of them. Once introductions between Jackson and the other two had been made and more drinks were ordered, everyone was talking and laughing in no time. Around eleven, after they were all properly buzzed, Jackson turned to Gavin and said, So tell me, what’s y’alls story? How’d ya meet?
Ellie’s posture stiffened at the question. Gavin, on the other hand, got a big smile on his face, one that Arlene recognized. She’d heard the story more than once before, had seen Gavin’s ham performance at a few work events. But Jackson hadn’t, so she kept her mouth shut.
Oh, it’s a good one, Gavin said. My favorite, actually. It’s pretty funny…
Is it? Ellie asked quietly.
…see, it just so happens that I saved this young lady’s life – you mind if I tell it this time, honey?
Ellie started, You know, I don’t think –
Aw, c’mon, babe, it’s such a good story. Please let me tell it?
Gavin, I really think –
Ah, don’t be a stick in the mud, Gavin said with a grin and put an arm around Ellie’s shoulder. Ellie gave him a look that Arlene couldn’t quite decipher before moving out from under his grasp. Gavin didn’t seem to notice and started his story without missing a beat.
Get this, he said, I’d been camping alone near Lake Lanier, and my site overlooked the water. I liked to have my coffee near the bank and read. Well, on this particular morning, I got distracted by a group of kayakers taking lessons close by. Didn’t take me long to notice this beautiful lady with them.
Gavin made a show of looking at Ellie with starry eyes before continuing with his story. She stared off into the distance, obviously avoiding his gaze while sipping her drink.
But she stood out from the crowd for another reason, too, Gavin continued, poor girl’s kayak kept tipping over. She’d be paddling along and every ten minutes or so, her boat would start rocking from side to side and before you knew it, she’d be upside down.
Ellie tried cutting in, started to say, I wasn’t exactly all THAT bad –
Oh honey, it’s all right, he interrupted. I can’t tell you how many times I watched her struggle to drag that damn thing up to the shore to drain the water before paddling back to join the rest of the crew.
Ellie’s face darkened and Arlene watched her down the rest of her whiskey sour. She couldn’t blame Ellie – the story was obnoxious. Gavin was making all kinds of wild gestures with his hands to illustrate exactly how Ellie had swam and paddled through the water, how she had pulled the kayak to shore. The whole act somehow seemed even more overly rehearsed than it had the first or second time she’d heard it. She glanced over at Jackson, who didn’t appear to share her thoughts – he was leaning forward, eyes wide, obviously eager to see where the story was headed.
Around noon, he continued, everyone headed back to the shore, but this girl right here? She stayed out, kept trying. I had to hand it to her, she had spunk. Just the way I like ‘em. Once everyone left though, she started getting it right – did a couple laps without any trouble, made some sharp turns like a pro. I couldn’t help but quietly cheer her on. But then, all of a sudden, the boat started rocking and she flipped over again. I waited for her head to pop up out of the water, but…
He gave a dramatic pause. Ellie rolled her eyes and flagged the waitress down to order another drink.
…it didn’t, he said. I saw the boat start to rock wildly this time and just barely glimpsed her tiny hands slapping the top side for help – you bet your ass I was in the water, swimming as fast as I can. She’s probably 100 meters away, and even though I was on the swim team in high school, I’m running out of breath pretty quick. But there was no way I was stopping ‘til I got this girl’s head above water again.
Arlene thought she heard Ellie mumble something like, 100 meters my ass. But Gavin certainly didn’t hear her, because he just kept on going.
When I got there, I dove under and found her just floating there, hands still on the cord of her kayak skirt. Poor girl must have been on the brink of death. I started pulling like hell on the cord and it came free almost without a hitch – needed a man’s touch, y’know?
Gavin nudged Ellie playfully at that, to which she responded with an unmistakable scoff. This slowed Gavin down for a second, but the big smile was plastered on his face when he looked back up at Jackson.
But anyways, he said, so I got her free and dragged her to the surface. She coughed and spluttered a bit, but we made it back to shore okay. After things calmed down, we got to talking and hit it off. And now she’s mine and I wouldn’t give her up for the world.
Man, Jackson said. That is SOME story. Ellie, you sure are lucky this guy was there.
Lucky, Ellie said with a snort. The waitress walked up with Ellie’s drink and she snatched it off the tray before the young woman even had a chance to try handing it to her.
There’s just some girls need savin’, Gavin said. Ah, but it was nothing, really. But enough about me – what about you? How’d you meet this gal?
Oh, I can’t follow that, Jackson said with a blush. It was nothing special. A mutual friend threw a party and we just happened to bump into each other. Talked a bit that night and been together ever since.
He awkwardly put his arm around Arlene and for the first time, she had to resist the urge to flinch at his touch. There’s a little more to it than that, she said but didn’t attempt to fill the rest of the group in on the details.
Ellie, already almost finished with her new drink, turned in the booth to face Gavin.
You should tell them another FUNNY story, she said. There’s so many more ones, so much FUNNIER.
Gavin gave a small laugh and said, Well what did you have in mind?
WELL, Ellie said. We could tell them about the time you ate too many Sonic chili dogs and shit your pants at the Barnes and Noble on Main Street.
Everyone froze and stared at Ellie. A look of surprise crossed Gavin’s face for a moment. He recovered with another smaller laugh, albeit slightly less enthusiastic, and said, I think someone’s had a little too much to drink.
Psh, Ellie said. Not even – I’m just getting started. Let’s tell them about the time you had decided to re-shingle the roof by yourself but then couldn’t get more than halfway up the ladder because you suddenly remembered your fear of heights. He was stuck up there whining like a little bitch for – what was it honey? Something like THREE hours?
Gavin turned his whole body to Ellie and quietly asked, Is something wrong?
Ellie laughed again a little too loudly. No no, nothing’s wrong. Why would anything be wrong? she asked. We’re all just having fun, aren’t we, telling stories? Wait wait, I’ve got a great one – we could tell them about the time you got hit by a car in the post office parking lot because you were too busy staring at some blonde’s big tits. That’s a FUNNY one, isn’t it?
Gavin’s face flushed pink and he said, I think that’s enough.
Oh, Ellie said and feigned a look of concern. Do those things bother you? Are those not happy memories for you? Because I sure as hell got a kick out of them. I think they’re FUNNY.
Maybe it’s time we got going, Jackson said.
Oh wait, Ellie replied, I still haven’t told you about the time we tried getting intimate at my parents’ house, and he cried when he couldn’t get it up because –
Are you insane? Gavin yelled. Jesus Christ, I don’t know what’s gotten into you.
What’s gotten into ME? Ellie yelled back. Why do YOU always have to be such a narcissistic fuck-ass?
There was no going back. As they continued arguing loudly, Jackson fished a couple bills from his wallet and put them on the table before grabbing Arlene’s hand and leading her out of the bar. She looked over her shoulder one more time before they walked out the door. Ellie and Gavin were still yelling at each other, and the bar manager had even come over to try breaking things up.
For the first couple minutes of the car ride home, neither Arlene nor Jackson spoke. They both let the radio fill the silence, until Jackson finally turned it down and said, Man alive – do they go at it like that all the time?
Arlene shook her head in reply. I mean, she said, things always get tense when he tells that story. She used to be afraid of the water, and she’s not particularly fond of that story.
Well, Jackson said, that’s no reason to act the way she did. Way out of line.
Arlene looked sideways at Jackson. You don’t think Gavin was too?
Jackson gave a shrug. He was just telling a story – she didn’t need to react the way she did.
Didn’t you see how it obviously made her uncomfortable?
Well, she should have said something before he got that far into it.
If you say so, Arlene said quietly.
Christ, if we ever get like that, just smack me off the back of the head, all right? That’s our signal.
Arlene couldn’t help but smile a little at that. In spite of his faults, Jackson did have a wonderful habit of making her smile. She looked out the window as they passed a river and wondered how Ellie must have felt under the water. Without turning to look at Jackson, she said, You know, I almost drowned once.
Yeah. One of the scariest moments of my life. When I was twelve, I was at the beach with my family and I got caught in the undertow. I was trapped. Couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream, or see. Couldn’t do much of anything besides wonder to myself how long will I be here for? I don’t remember how, but my father eventually got me out of there. I still had to go to the hospital, get checked for brain damage.
Jesus. You never told me that before.
Never had a reason to.
Jackson’s brow furrowed, but he didn’t respond, just kept his eyes on the road. After a little while, he asked, Am I staying over tonight or just dropping you off?
I need to shower, but if you want to stay, you can.
When they got home, she went upstairs to take a shower but decided on a bath instead. Arlene soaked in the hot water and thought about Ellie in the lake, wondered how much time she was under. Arlene then slipped her head below the surface and held her breath, just to see how long she could do it. It wasn’t more than forty-five seconds before she resurfaced. She tried again and again, pushing herself to hold her breath for as long as she could, coming closer to a minute. After a little while, she heard Jackson calling for her.
You coming to bed? he asked.
In a second, she said. I’m almost finished.
By this point, the water was cold and her fingertips were shriveled, but Arlene didn’t care much. She didn’t want Jackson to find her like this, to have to explain herself to him, so this would be the last time. She took a deep breath and dipped her head.
Opening her eyes, she looked up at the ceiling distorted by ripples in the water. It wasn’t long before her body began to twitch and want for air, but she did her best to hold herself in place. It seemed necessary to see how long she could push herself, how long she could withstand the pressure and pain of being there. Jackson might have started calling for her again, but he sounded so far away, she couldn’t be sure. The only sound coming in clearly was that of her solitary heartbeat pounding in her ears, but it wasn’t a quiet thumping. It was a roaring all her own that reminded her of ocean waves crashing on the beach.
Even after she broke through the surface, gasping for air, the noise continued, drowning out everything else with its own almighty sound.
Amanda Malone currently lives and writes in Georgia. She holds an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato and also serves as Assistant Interviews Editor for The Rumpus. Her work has previously appeared in CHEAP POP, Wyvern Lit, and Chicago Literati.
Cover Art:Dana Potter (In collaboration with Lila Shull)Random Weave (3/20)20" x 10"Screenprint, 2018