Sink or Swim

Single mom and suburban misfit Cam Lightsey is facing her biggest challenge yet: sending her only daughter off to college. Eighteen-year-old Aubrey will likely do just fine—but will Cam? An exclusive excerpt from Sarah Bird’s new novel, The Gap Year.
Sink or Swim
Illustration by Michael Byers

I once believed that I was physiologically incapable of being unhappy while submerged in water. Sunk in a bathtub up to my eyeballs, I was as free of earthly cares as a turtle sunning herself.

Yet here I am, wallowing through my tenth lap, feeling prickly and unsettled rather than weightless and dolphin-sleek. Instead of soaring into silent galaxies, I am snarled up in annoyance that my right eye is stinging because these crappy goggles are leaking. And that the ladies’ aqua-cardio class in the shallow end is blaring “It’s Raining Men.” And that the flip-turning jerk I’m sharing a lane with drowns me every time he powers past. And that because I didn’t expose my only child to enough dirt, Aubrey will hit the germ factory that is a college dorm with a weak immune system. And that she will die of spinal meningitis.

Although I am a slob and raised Aubrey with plenty of messiness, my worst enemy—Recent Studies—now tells me that I should have gone the extra step and provided actual squalor. Recent Studies says that the absolute best thing for building antibodies is close contact with livestock. If I’d only put a goat in the playpen with my baby, she probably wouldn’t have asthma today.

I speed up my stroke, pushing my hands beneath me like a Mississippi paddle wheeler, annoyances scattering in my mighty wake. But, persistent as a school of piranhas, the worries and regrets stay right with me and continue nibbling. They must have massed for this attack because Aubrey turns eighteen tomorrow. The day before she leaves for college. Not that we’ll be doing any celebrating together. She’s already made it clear that she plans to spend every second until she gets on the plane with Tyler.

I force myself to ignore the “Hallelujah, it’s rainin’ men!” chorus and concentrate on the comforting slurp and slap of my hands cutting into the water. I tune in to the stretch of muscles and tendons pulleying in harmony. I pay conscious attention to the shifting mosaic of wobbling squares of late-afternoon sunlight sliding across the turquoise pool bottom. I plan out where I will install the wheelchair ramp after meningitis renders my only child a vegetable.

Is it too late for the goat?

Hydrotherapy is not working. I yank off the leaky goggles just in time to see that my best friend, Dori Chotzinoff, has finally emerged from the dressing room. Dori always says that her last name is pronounced like you’re saying, “One shot’s enough,” even though, for Dori, one shot is never enough. She sashays over with her head cocked to the side, tucking her hair into the retro flowered cap with chin strap that she wears to look Mad Men–ish and to save her expensive dye jobs. Her vampire-pale skin is coated with a layer of sunscreen thick enough to mute her many tattoos to pastel smudges of blue and green.

I squint into the sun. “I almost gave up on you.”

She gives me a little Mae West pinup pose, one hand on her cocked hip, the other pretending to puff up her hair, and says, “Sorry, Cam, had to gild the lily.” Dori kneels down and waits for the guy in the lane with me heaving and whipping himself through the water with a butterfly stroke to reach us. When he’s close enough to hear her, she yells out, “Excuse me, sir!”

Ignoring her, he barrels into a flip turn, and for a split second we are treated to the sight of his upturned ass with its black censor bar of Speedo. He is about to push off and blast away when Dori grabs his ankle.

The butterflier—middle-aged once you see his face—pops out of the water. “What the . . . !” He punches a button on his waterproof watch and snarls, “I’m timing my splits.”

Alert as a herd of gazelle scenting danger on the Serengeti, all heads—the moms rubbing sunscreen on skinny shoulders, the just-turned-teen girls tanning on lounge chairs, the boys waiting in line at the diving board to show off for the girls—swivel in our direction.

Dori jumps in and informs Flip Turn, “We’re sharing this lane.”

“What is your problem?” Flip gestures to the lane next to us. “There’s only one person in that lane.”

Dori puts her arm over my shoulder. “Yeah, but that one person is not my BFF, Cam Lightsey.”

Flip starts to argue, so I lean my head on Dori’s shoulder and say, “Plus, we’re lesbians. Sorry.” We’re not. But it’s fun to say. And it ends the discussion.

Flip shakes his head, dunks under the white floats of the lane rope, jerks a thumb in our direction, and announces loudly to the woman in the next lane, “They’re making me move.”

I grab my kickboard, hand Dori hers, and announce our favorite cardiovascular activity, “Kick and kvetch!”

As we chug past Flip, busily resetting his watch, Dori yells out for his benefit, “Hey, Cam! Sorry for breaking up your romance with Mr. Banana Hammock!”

Dori is like my grandmother Bobbi Mac. Not the piercings or tattoos or broken marriage to the lead singer in an Aerosmith tribute band, but her take-no-shit, get-the-party-started vibe. Spunk—Bobbi Mac was big on spunk, something she didn’t think her own daughter, my mom, Rose, had had in sufficient quantity. Spunk is Dori’s middle name. Single-handedly, she almost made being a Parkhaven outcast fun. She loved to laugh over which mom had “shit the biggest brick” when Dori dropped casual asides about her years as a member of the all-girl band Tampaxxx. “Triple X,” she’d clarify with a lascivious wink. “I guess you know why.”

“So,” Dori asks as we stretch out and churn the water behind us with our fluttering feet. “What are we obsessing about today?”

I share my thoughts on brain infections and barnyard animals.

“Yes? And? So? Aubrey gets a shot.”

“They have a shot for meningitis?”

“Der. Cam, you’re

Tags: SARAH BIRD,

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