In bed that night, unable to sleep, I watched Robert light one cigarette with another. He’d been chain smoking since our fiasco at the river. We’d hardly talked. I scooted to the edge of my cot, reached across the gap to place my hand on his. He mistook this as a move for his cigarette and offered it to me. I took a long, deep, drag, holding the smoke in my lungs until it hurt before exhaling. We passed it back-and-forth a few more times like a joint, smoking in silence.
“So now I know you don't like swimming," I said as a sort of peace offering.
“I love swimming," he said. "I just hate getting wet.”
We both laughed. I exhaled a cloud of smoke.
“You know,” I said holding the cigarette like a teacher pointing a stick, “I could teach you how to swim.”
“I said I know how to fucking swim! Fuck off!”
I was stunned. Not knowing what to say, I held out the cigarette for him to take. He rolled over to turn his back to me. I squashed the butt on the concrete floor, curled into fetal position. For a long time, neither one of us said anything, the wheezing of Robert's chest, the only sound. He rolled onto his back, stared at the ceiling. He sat up to punch his pillow a few times, laid back down. He rolled onto his side again. He reached for his pack of cigarettes. I kept quiet.
“My dad taught my brother and me how to swim,” he said. “My grandpa refused to learn.”
When Robert was fourteen, his father made plans to take the boys' sailing in Sydney Harbor. Their grandfather joined them at the last minute. After a few hours they noticed dark clouds forming on the horizon and turned back toward shore. They were too late. The storm was violent. The boat capsized. Everyone was thrown overboard. Robert's father, a strong swimmer, managed to pull his two sons back to the boat. He told them to hold on, he’d be right back. The grandfather was out there somewhere. The boys begged their father to stay with the boat. He swam off into the crashing waves until they lost sight of him. The boys clung to the boat sobbing. Several minutes past. Their grandfather appeared, exhausted but alive. The three of them held onto the capsized boat until the storm past and a rescue boat found them.
"Two days later, my father's body washed ashore," said Robert inhaling deeply.
His tears, reflecting the glowing ember, rolled orange down his face. I closed my eyes. I didn’t tell him about my brother.
(Memoir OVERLAND by Vivian McInerny with image by @194angellstreet. I realized while writing this, I have no idea if Robert told the truth but I completely trusted that he did. I wish I could find Robert. All I remember is that he was from Sydney and he must be around 64-66 now. I would think there were newspaper stories about the accident at the time, which must have happened in the mid-1960s, because the boys and their grandfather survived and only the father died)