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.

new year’s eve

It’s December 6th, and I am already thinking about New Year’s Eve. It’s because I like to put together trivia questions on the past year’s events for my fellow revelers, y’see, and I get to thinking about it as we launch into December. Last year, it was the 2010 Olympics and Wikileaks and Haiti and the unpronounceable volcano and the Chilean miners and vuvuzelas. In 2009, it was the banking crisis in Iceland and fires in Australia and swine flu and Michael Jackson and water on the moon. And in 2008, my inaugural year, it was the U.S. mortgage crisis and the global financial crisis and Barack Obama and the Fidel Castro resignation and Ingrid Betancourt and Michael Phelps and the proton beam.

This year, well there’s so much. So, so, much. But you’ll have to wait. (I’m going to make it easier this year; there will be a question about Amy Winehouse.)

In the meantime, here is something I wrote recently about a New Year’s Eve of at least 10 years ago. My mum is in it. It’s a true story in which I become brave and curse at a stranger. Enjoy!

***

Vancouver used to have a First Night celebration on New Year’s Eve. It’s not really my kind of thing: I don’t like to be outdoors late at night when it’s cold and wet. And it’s often just so in Vancouver in the winter. But one year – it must have been in the late 1990s – my mother was visiting and I thought it would be a good opportunity for some mother-daughter bonding. We heard that there would be some live music. I think that band was a favorite of mine at the time, but I honestly can’t remember. In fact, I can’t remember anything about that night except for our walk through the slush back to the SkyTrain when we were ready to go home.

Normally, I am pretty shy. I don’t often strike up conversations with people I don’t know. I certainly don’t seek out confrontation. But three times in my life I have lost my temper with a stranger. This was one of them.

My mother and I were walking to the station shortly after midnight. We were both cold and I, at least, was wishing we had stayed home. Like I said, outdoors and wet winter nights are not a good combination for me. My mood worsened when I realized that a group of drunk teenaged boys was behind us. I gradually became aware that they were making rude remarks that they wanted us to overhear. My mother and I didn’t say anything to each other, but we both sped up, shoulders hunched, hoods up, hurrying through the wet snow. The boys got louder, laughing now. They began to throw snowballs at us. I couldn’t believe it. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before, and I wondered what my mother was thinking. Was she frightened? Thinking back, I don’t think I feared for our physical safety, but I was certainly afraid of being harassed and embarrassed. And I was afraid to say anything to them.

That all changed in a second when one of the snowballs hit my mother smack in the middle of her back. This transformed me into somebody brave. I didn’t decide to be brave; I simply became brave, without thought. I stopped dead and turned around. The boys stopped too. “Who threw that snowball?” I demanded. One of them laughed. I marched toward him and shoved him in the chest. He fell into the snowbank.

“Hey…” he said. “It wasn’t me, man. It was my friend!”

“Fuck you!” I yelled, and rejoined my mother farther up the sidewalk. “Fuck you guys!”

I think this was the first time my mother had heard me swear. She didn’t say anything about it, though.

“Sorry, man,” we heard from behind us as we set off. “Sorry… Hey, happy new year, man. Happy new year!”