Drowning Lessons

By Emelyn Fuhrman. Posted in Creative Nonfiction and Issue One. Bookmark the permalink.

"Needlewash," by Jamie Bono.

"Needlewash," by David James Keaton (staff).


Kurtis was my swimming buddy. He was three years younger and a lot bigger than me, big for his age to be sure, but in the water that didn’t matter. We took lifeguarding classes together and had become partners for no other reason than I knew him and he knew me. Our instructor simply said, “Pair up,” and we made eye contact.

I wrapped my arm around his chest, my hand tucked into his armpit, my elbow pressed between his ribs and pulled him from one end of the pool to the other, kicking my legs as hard as I could and scooping the water with my free arm. Then we switched places and he dragged me back. His head next to mine, I looked for flecks of green in his dirty-blond hair. We barely spoke.

I still don’t know what we could have said, our bodies touching, breathing heavily into each others faces as we heaved our collective weight through the pool. For this exercise we tried to remain motionless, to act like a body, to be a brick.


My little brother, Jesse, was embarrassed to take his shirt off in front of people. He had acne on his back and chest, puberty had darkened his nipples and small curly brown hairs were sprouting between his pectoral muscles. He rarely got into the pool. Even on the hottest summer days he would sit in the sun in a t-shirt, shorts, baseball cap, socks and sneakers, and just sweat.


In college I study the receptors in the brain. They are primarily composed of a tube-like structure that when divided into peptide strands looks like ribbons weaved together. On the ends of the tube, these ribbons come loose and stretch in every direction, dancing in the synapse, reaching out, waiting for the neurotransmitters. Once they arrive they bind, receive, and release. When an opiate enters the brain it mimics a neurotransmitter. It becomes a drag queen in a dimly lit bar. It’s not until it’s bound to a receptor, until it’s started communicating (perhaps even become a little intimate), that the receptor has any idea it’s been tricked.


I heard Jesse in the shower. I knocked on the bathroom door. I pounded, I yelled. I grabbed a wire hanger from the closet, bent it out of shape and pushed the tip into the small hole in the bathroom doorknob and the door unlocked. Jesse was naked, curled up on his side.

“Jesse! Jesse, wake up!” I said.

I knew he wasn’t dead, his skin was pink. The hot steam had filled his pores; plumping and swelling his flesh, making his thighs look too feminine, too much like mine. I grabbed a towel and threw it over his waist.


For the next lifeguarding drill Kurtis and I became more animated. Rather than an unconscious body (whose only challenge was weight) we had to panic as our swim partner tried to pull us to safety. The average drowning person does not come willingly. They are in a state of total paranoia and shock, fighting for their life. To mimic this as closely as possible we would submerge ourselves into the water and wait… and wait… and wait… When we could feel our lungs screaming for air, we swam to the surface and thrashed around.

When Kurtis grabbed onto me and tried to pull me out of the pool, I had to fight him. I climbed up Kurtis’s torso, pushed on his head, clawed at his arms and face, and wrapped my legs around his limbs, preventing him from staying afloat, from being able to swim at all. In this exercise we practiced losing control.


I always knew whenever Jesse was high or drunk because he would talk. Normally Jesse was reserved; he would speak in lines of dialogue pulled from films or television, if he spoke at all. When he was high he could follow a conversation, he acted interested in what I had to say. The drugs filled in some of the gaps in his brain; they gave him courage as well as affability.


When I was eight I stepped on a catfish nest while swimming in a lake. The catfish attacked me. I panicked, kicking my legs, trying to get away from the fish. I slipped and swallowed a mouthful of water trying to scream. I knew how to swim, how to hold my breath, but I forgot all that. I remember the heat; the burn in my throat, in my stomach, in my chest; the hands that slipped under my arms and pulled me out of the water.

By Erin Keaton.

By Erin Keaton.


The heroin makes Jesse scratch himself, over and over, up and down his arms and legs, across his chest and stomach. He says it feels like insects crawling all over him. I’ve watched him for hours just waiting to see if he’ll scratch deep to draw blood.


Once the opiate has successfully bound to a receptor in the brain it starts to whisper dirty little secrets. It tells the brain to release dopamine. Copious amounts of dopamine. Dopamine is a part of your mental punishment and reward system (depression versus pleasure). It is most commonly released during moments of joy, during a good meal, and during sex. To you this rush of dopamine feels amazing. You’re in the greatest state of pleasure that the human brain can obtain.


Kurtis’s stomach flopped over his bathing suit. He walked around the pool as if he wasn’t used to his own body, limbs too long and heavy, and his head too far from his feet. When it came time to retrieve the ten pound weight from the deep end, Kurtis struggled. We weren’t allowed to dive off the side of the pool, giving us the momentum and assistance of gravity; rather we had to surface dive the eleven-foot depth, bending our bodies at the waist, using only our arms and stomach muscles until our feet were submerged. Kurtis would put his top half into the water, kick and splash on the surface and then come up for air, red-faced and irritated. Each time our instructor reset the timer and blew the whistle, Kurtis’s breath became shorter, the redness spreading down his neck and onto his chest, the pain and exhaustion of his body discernible.

When he finally succeeded, his feet disappearing into the water, it seemed as though everyone else held their breath too. Kurtis came out of the water with the black weight raised over his head like a trophy. We clapped and cheered not out of victory or conquest, but out of relief. In this exercise we practiced apprehension.


The brain knows when there’s too much of a good thing. The flood of dopamine causes the brain to hold back on the number of dopamine receptors it produces and eventually it stops producing so much dopamine altogether. When addicts say they are chasing that initial high, this is what they are referring to. Once it happens, once you take that first hit, you can never, ever get that feeling back. The neurotransmitters are no longer there in such abundance. You can increase the amount, the frequency, the purity, but nothing helps. The brain has adapted; the brain has cut you off.


In 2003, my mother calls to tell me about Kurtis. She says he held an eighty-five-year-old woman hostage and robbed her. That a former classmate of mine had gone along as well and stabbed the old lady’s dog to death. The two men left with six hundred dollars, ran into some nearby woods, stripped and burned their clothing. Kurtis gave up his stash when the police raided his home. He handed them a needle and a few bags of heroin from underneath his mattress. During the arraignment he swore at the judge and held up his middle finger to the onlookers and press and then sat stoic and unemotional as they read him the charges and possible sentence of seventy years in prison. I still can’t piece together the Kurtis I knew with the Kurtis she describes, still tall, still big, but a man now, a man who swears, a man who hides heroin under his mattress, a man with chest hair.


With repeated drug abuse, the brain’s dopamine levels eventually become so depressed that you need the drug to even function normally. The neurons start to die off; your mental state becomes tainted and obscured. You physically and emotionally ache without it. You have to get it, by any means necessary.


In 2004, Jesse overdosed on heroin and went into a coma. The doctor that saved him tried to tell us how close he was to death, how blue he was, as blue as the ocean.


When you drown your body panics, using up what little oxygen you may have stored. The pressure from a build up of carbon dioxide strains your chest and causes you to involuntarily breathe in water. You’ll swallow some, try to cough, choke, swallow more; your throat and stomach and head will ache more than you thought possible, and just when you can’t bear the pain any longer the lack of oxygen will send you into unconsciousness. Once your throat and larynx have relaxed, water will enter the lungs causing cardiac arrest, stopping the flow of oxygen to the brain. Without oxygen the brain begins to deteriorate and eventually dies.


I’ll never lifeguard. I’ll never sit in one of those tall chairs with a whistle around my neck. I’ll never save a life. I’ll stick the lifeguarding certificate in a drawer where it will yellow and fade.


When you overdose, the opiate feels just a little bit better than normal. Good enough that your senses momentarily heighten and tell you something is wrong. But before you can do anything about it you pass out. Your respiratory system slows down, the oxygen level in your body drops. You stop breathing and your heart stops beating.


I imagine Kurtis standing in that old woman’s house, still, silent, holding his breath. He cuts the power and waits until his eyes adjust to the dark. I tell myself that when he gets to her, when he’s tying her hands together he’s gentle, he’s concentrating so hard that he forgets for a moment what he’s doing. Maybe he’s back in that pool, trying to squirm out of my arms while I’m trying desperately not to let go of him. He accidentally scratches my arm, just above my elbow and he stops what he’s doing to apologize. He touches the scratch with the tips of his fingers.

“I’m so sorry,” he says. I tell him not to worry, to try again, and to keep going. We have to focus. We’re teaching each other to drown.

● ● ●

Emelyn Fuhrman is a recent MFA graduate of the creative writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. She has an MS in chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University and a BS from Hobart and William Smith College. Since moving to Pittsburgh she has lived next to train tracks, the port authority busway, and two major highways; consequently, she has learned to find the sound of Jake brakes as soothing as ocean waves.

Erin Elizabeth Keaton is a 27-year-old writer and artist who does not live in New York.

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2 Responses to “Drowning Lessons”

  1. Laurel Roberts says:

    Wow. That was really good.

  2. Amanda says:

    I’ve steered several people to this piece, and we all agree it should be required reading… I just love this. The structure is great, and the understated language and repetition play off each other brilliantly. I feel so lucky that I was able to read this in its first printing.

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