When we were girls, we would lay in the cool blue orb of the above-ground pool in the backyard, our bodies flat across the surface, heads down, arms out, lifeless, what we called Dead Man’s Float, five minutes, ten, lifting our chins only for quick gulps of air, then back down, eleven minutes, twelve, counting in our heads and waiting for our mother’s voice from the kitchen window, calling, Girls? then a pause, and in the waiting silence we could feel her watching, her straining concentration, squinting into the sun toward the pool, then calling again, this time with a small note of panic in her voice, a tight, electric trill, Girls, are you all right? still holding our breath, cheeks full and lungs burning, listening for the sound of the screen door clacking shut, the frantic swish of our mother’s bare feet running through the grass.
We played Dead Man’s Float, we played Prisoner. Meg curled on the floor of the aluminum shed, her wrists and ankles bound with silver duct tape stolen from our father’s workbench. A rough rag in her mouth, a blindfold. Tell me what you know. I paced the warped wooden floor, poking her ribs with my big toe. Pasadena summers in the mid-fifties; twenty years ago now. The interior of the shed hotter than hell. An Easy-Bake Oven, walls scalding to the touch. Both of us soaked in sweat, our skin reeking with chlorine. Tell me the truth this time. Meg thrashing and moaning or lying preternaturally still, her body going slack. Dead Man’s Float out of water. Frustrated by Meg’s will to silence, tired of asking questions, I’d release her and we’d switch places, the tape around my wrists and ankles now, the rags in my mouth, over my eyes. Meg pacing the shed, the whispered interrogation. My turn to withhold, to try not to break. But I was never as skilled a prisoner; I couldn’t hold out nearly as long. I gave in to the ache in my arms and legs, the choking panic of the gag filling my mouth. I wasn’t able to go inside like Meg did, the full withdrawal from questions, from the shed, the world. Occupying some distant interior space, there but not there, not really.