We’re halfway through June, and though the first day of summer isn’t technically until June 21, I think we can all agree that we’re well into the sweltering season. This week’s story captures those quintessential staples of summer—swimming pools, soft serve, bike rides, frozen Capri Suns—but it’s no typical poolside read. “We Were the Drowners” by Josie Sigler and shared online at Lit Hub, is one of ten stories by emerging writers selected by Amy Hempel for The Masters Review Vol. V. It’s a coming-of-age tale about a recreational league swim team in a factory town where the waters aren’t as clear as they may seem.
From June to August, Monday through Saturday, we, the ten swimmingest members of the girls’ recreational team, climbed onto our banana-seated bicycles in the first morning heat. We pedaled, streamers flowing, toward the pool at the edge of our neighborhood. We entered the beige brick building that smelled of chlorine and mildew. Tucked behind our locker doors, we undressed. In the showers, we shouted the best songs on the radio, our voices echoing, our suits sucking quick and wet against our new bodies, the dents and swells we hadn’t shown to anyone yet. We reported for duty poolside at seven.
Sigler tells the story from the perspective of a thirteen-“almost fourteen”-year-old member of the Dolphins, the girls’ swim team, and her voice is complete with that age group’s usual obsessions of appearing to be cool and crushing on boys. The picture she eases us into is so typically American Summer that you can almost smell the chlorine, feel the sunscreen, and hear the Top 40 hits over the static-y poolside loudspeakers, which makes it all the more jarring when she casually, innocently, slips something so unspeakably wrong into the scene: Charity Tremblay, the most popular swim team member, has been diagnosed with cancer, and she’s not the only one.
We had known other people with cancer. My aunt. Kerri’s grandfather. A few kids at the high school bore their radiation scars so bravely you could almost forget how their sad faces had looked on the coffee cans that graced the counters of businesses all over town. But Charity. Our leader. The one we secretly wished we could be.
Sigler reveals this information as if it’s totally normal because, as far as our teenage narrator knows, it is. The blasé manner in which the narrator mentions marrow drives and says things like “everything cancerous, I learned when my aunt was sick, is relative in size to a grapefruit,” is heart wrenching. The narrative tension this creates casts a shadow over the sunny summer days, turning each mention of the chemical factories that provide employment for the town sinister. But while we, as readers who have seen Erin Brockovich and read about water crises across America, tense with every dip into the possibly poisoned swimming pool, our narrator blissfully goes about being a teenager: having sleepovers and hanging out in the Dairy Queen parking lot and feeling a little guilty for stealing Charity’s boyfriend while Charity is battling cancer.
When I considered my life, I could think of only two things: first, how I used to be afraid of the Connelly’s German Shepherd, Duke, and Charity always walked past their yard first on our way to school and never made fun of me about it. Second, the night I learned I was not the one who could save her. How I lay in my bed feeling a rush of relief because I wouldn’t have to offer up the wing of my personal ilium for the drilling.
It’s this honesty, this acknowledgement of selfishness, that makes “Drowners” so compelling. While the diagnoses keep rolling in for members of the swim team, our narrator and the other Dolphins are first and foremost teenage girls. Perhaps they aren’t capable of fully comprehending what’s happening around them, or maybe they’re victims of the false invincibility of youth, but for them this is just a normal summer. They’re going to grow up and move to Hollywood. They’re going to get a nose job one day. They’re going to have their first kiss. They’re going to graduate to the high school swim team next year. This will be their last summer as Dolphins.
Logo art by Max Winter.