the audience

So I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight – watching over nothing.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

At the time, Davey was nothing more to me than a cute kid — one of several blond siblings from a farming family, one of many children who took swimming lessons from my brother and me in the summer of 1988. Under normal circumstances, he probably would have faded from my memory over the years as the other children have done.

But, as time passed, Davey took up more and more space in my mind. At first, I thought of him rarely, when I happened to see his older cousin Will in the city. Later, whenever I saw a suntanned child of a certain age and posture. Eventually, not day passed that I didn’t think of him. It’s true that I failed that afternoon, even if I am the only one who knows it. But I also changed, fundamentally. Perhaps that is why Davey took up residence in my head, becoming, over time, a constant spectator. I was no longer alone — he was always there too: taking in my world, measuring my choices, regarding my successes, witnessing my failures.

My family and I left our lakeside town that September for the city. As I became an adult and went about my life, so far from my hometown, I wondered what Davey — the real Davey — knew of me, knew of us. Because Davey in my head wasn’t enough, of course. I wanted to know the Davey in the world, the Davey I imagined must be (how could he not be?) as fixated on me as I was on him. I was reluctant, however, to seek him out. I couldn’t bear to discover that he knew how I had hesitated that day.

***

I remember that afternoon pretty well, even nearly 25 years on. When the last swimming lesson was over and the children returned to their parents, my younger brother Andrew and I, co-instructors that summer for the first and last time, headed for the dock to enjoy the last of the sun. We sat for awhile. We chatted to the kids while they — Davey and his sister included — horsed around and jumped off the dock over and over again.

Andrew was the reason the lessons were successful. During the previous summer, without him, I had trouble stretching the lessons to the full half hour. Once, I led the kids up the beach after only 15 minutes. People had complained about that. But Andrew was diligent and reliable; such lapses never happened when he was there.

Davey was a sturdy 5-year-old, impossibly blond and suntanned, with a round baby tummy, dark brown eyes, and freckles on his nose. He was happy and fearless. I have only a faint memory of him that particular afternoon, before the event. But I imagine him whooping and jumping and splashing with the rest of the kids who stayed after the lessons were over.

After a half an hour or so, I decided it was time to go home. The afternoon was getting chilly; the sun had gone. Edging past Andrew on the narrow dock, I was starting back when my eye was caught by something in the water to my left.

Floating just under the surface was a small form, face down. I saw immediately that it was Davey. I saw his yellow bathing suit. I saw his little body, pale now against the darkness, swaying slightly with the motion of the water. It was very shallow. Many other kids were playing close to him, within arm’s reach. I remember this.

I knew I must jump in and lift his face clear of the water. But I did not move. Instead, I measured, calculated. How long had he been floating there? Seconds? Minutes? How many minutes? Was it too late? I feared that any attempts I made to save him would fail and that his death would become my fault. Still I did not move. But at least, at last, I remembered my voice.

“Andrew!”

Andrew saw. He jumped in and scooped the Davey out of the water and carried him to the beach. It wasn’t far — only four or five large strides. Davey’s body was limp and his lips were blue.

Someone should call an ambulance. I would do that. I left the beach and ran through the parking lot towards the pay phone. I ran even though I knew my errand was pointless; by the time help arrived, Davey’s fate would be decided. But I wanted a reason to be absent. I thought of those seconds in which I had done nothing. I dodged to avoid a car that was driving too fast; my bare feet skidded on the gravel. A rock cut my foot, but I did not notice it until afterward.

By the time I returned, Davey was sitting up in Andrew’s arms and coughing. Davey’s mother was crying, hugging Davey, hugging Andrew. Others crowded around.

“I called the ambulance,” I said.

No one turned.

***

Not long after summer ended, Davey’s cousin Will and I both went to university in the city. I didn’t see too much of him. But some years later, when planning a rare trip back to town, I looked him up to ask if he wanted to carpool. I think he was surprised to hear from me.

Will picked me up on a Friday afternoon. For most of the six-hour drive, we didn’t say too much. We gossiped a little. He told me how he’d lost 30 pounds: “I don’t eat anything white,” I remember him saying. That was the first time I heard of low-carb. Davey glowed in the car with us, but I was reluctant to mention him. Did I guess what Will would tell me? Finally, as dusk fell, I asked how Davey was. Will was quiet for a minute. He didn’t look at me.

“You didn’t hear?”

I knew then what he was going to say.

“Davey died.”

I turned to look out the side window, watched the trees going by.

Will told me that Davey was hit by a car on his way to catch the school bus. It happened five years after the day he nearly drowned. The driver was a woman.

I wanted to know more. Had she seen him? Had she miscalculated distance, speed, time? When it was all over, did she stop? What she brave enough to look? But I didn’t ask. I kept my face turned, eyes on the window. It had become very dark. I saw nothing except my own reflection.

***

The shock is both less and more than you might expect. Less because Davey had already become unreal to me; he left me as a sturdy, warm physical being that day on the beach when I was 17. And more because my life — past and future — is different now; I have to regard it with my eyes alone. The audience I imagined is simply not there. And, what’s more, it never has been.

He no longer lives in my head, but I still think of Davey sometimes. I don’t try to think of him as an older child, as I had done, or as an adult, as I might have done. I think of him as a strong five-year-old in a bathing suit. I remember his smile and his eyes and the white sand stuck to his brown skin.

I think of his mother sometimes too. I remember her tearstained face from 1988. As a mother now myself, I wonder how she copes even all these years later. And, sometimes, I think of the driver — the unnamed woman who accidently killed a little boy with her car in 1993. I know nothing about her, nothing at all, other than that Davey is in her head too.

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