Open Water

The first mile.
It is early fall and the water is cold. Jago knew it would be. Still, the channel is warmer than the torso of the Atlantic. It is midmorning and the sky is hazy from fatigue. There had been a storm last night, the first gasps of autumn awakening. Jago had worried the swim would be called off, but, by daylight, the winds have abated. The water is calm, humbled by the shortening days. Still, Jago is not deceived. He knows the ocean’s wrinkles like a mother knows the scars on her child’s skin. Jago greases his suit with careful precision: the folds under his arm, the bends behind his knee, the creases of his groin. He is like butter gliding over the lulling waves with ease. The plugs in his ears tune out the motor of the boat thirty feet to the right and the sound of the water’s spit. Jago hears only the faint murmur of the ocean’s heartbeat. It is a familiar rhythm. Jago always likes rhythms.    

The second mile.
Jago was born eight weeks too early. It wasn’t because of the genetic disorder. It was because the water broke. The doctors had to perform an immediate C-section. Without the water, Jago almost died. At four months, an ultrasound confirmed the disorder. Before Jago was born, his parents had never heard of Fragile X Syndrome, now it would permeate their lives. They knew Jago would have an elongated face, oversized head, and large earlobes that would hang just above his jawline. They knew his intellect would be stunted and social anxiety heightened. They knew he would be at risk for autism, and knew he would be prone to compulsive behaviors. Before Jago was born, they didn’t know that he would hate Granny Smith apples and love cinnamon mints because they tasted like Christmas. They didn’t know that he would love water, that he could hold his breath for three minutes and eighteen seconds without coming up for air. And they didn’t know that, at age eighteen, Jago would swim across the English Channel.  

The third mile. 
It isn’t the sharks that Jago worries about. The water is too cold for that. It is the jellyfish. He has seen them before. He was stung by one before. Living on the coast of Florida, Jago would footprint the beach and see schools of jellyfish waiting for the tide. The waters were traders, abandoning their sea life to the breath of the sun. As a child, Jago fought an endless battle of rescue for the pink fish. Refilling a five gallon bucket with sea water, he would pour the liquid over the mushroomed heads, coaxing the creature safely back to the water’s grasp. You’ll never save them all, his father told him. Half of them are already dead. The first place Jago was stung was on the ankle. It burned for two days. Jago had been trying to help. But jellyfish are traders too. The jellyfish in the English Channel are scarce. The population has always been low in these parts because of the shipping route. Still, Jago watches for the flash of pink.  

The fourth mile.
An hour into the swim and Jago feels strong. His feet—the churn of propellers; his abs—the rows of engaged cylinders; his heartbeat—the rhythm of a charged battery. The wind is a sigh, and the water calm. Jago used to hate the water. He lived with his father in a small town near Rochester.  That was before he ever saw the ocean. Rochester was the sound of railroad tracks and the smell of eggs. That was why his mother left, his father told him. She hated the smell of eggs. There was a city pool near an abandoned steel mill. Jago’s father took him there every Saturday. At five years old, Jago would sit behind a plastic chair and clap five times when someone jumped off the diving board. He didn’t like the noise of the echoing voices, but he liked the way the water splashed when a diver submerged. Jago would wait one hour at the city pool while his father met with the man inside the steel mill. Jago’s father was late only once. He came into the pool hall, saw his son crouched behind plastic chair, and wrapped his thick fingers around Jago’s upper arm. You can’t just hide behind this fucking chair forever, he swore. He pulled Jago to the lip of the deep end. Jago tried to bite his wrist. I’m going to throw you into the pool, his father said, and you will either sink or you will swim. Jago felt his body being lifted from the floor, and then the sting of bare skin smacking water. Jago began to sink. 

The fifth mile.
The city pool offered private swimming lessons on Wednesday nights. Jago asked his father if he could go. He didn’t want to be in a class with other people, but he would settle for being in a class with only two other girls. Both were ten years old and laughed at his large head and wandering eye. Jago didn’t care. He could hold his breath under water for twice as long as they could. The one named Merry asked Jago where his mother was. He told her she didn’t like the smell of eggs so she had to leave. The girls giggled. I bet she just didn’t like you, said Merry. She probably wanted a normal kid. Jago plugs his nose and sinks to the bottom of the pool. He begins to count. The wind is churning and the water in the English Channel has become choppy. Jago’s goggles have loosened, and a trickle of liquid is dripping onto the bottom rim. He blinks, but knows he will have to tighten the strap. It is awkward to pause. The observers in the boat stand in alarm, the pilot looks over his shoulder. Even the water seems too calm in anticipation. Jago dumps the water from the goggles, tightens the rubber strap around his head, and gives a thumbs up to the man in the back of the boat. The wind exhales.
The sixth mile.
Jago needs to go to a special school, the teachers said. We don’t have the resources he requires. Jago didn’t care about school. He cared about water. Jago’s father, however, was livid. He couldn’t afford a private school. He couldn’t afford to relocate. Still, three months later when Jago was practicing the breaststroke, his father stood in the doorway of the pool hall. Jago, he called out to his son. I have great news. We’re moving to Florida. I’m taking you to the ocean. 

The seventh mile.
Jago has been swimming for two hours. His body is growing tired and he knows he needs nourishment. He wishes his body could swim twenty miles on exhilaration. But it is impossible.  Jago is prepared. He turns on his back and treads the water with agitation. He hates the back stroke. The man on the boat knows this and understands that Jago is hungry. It is not easy to feed a swimmer while he is in motion, but the man on the boat has done this before. He fills a water bottle with protein powder and milk. He nods to a fellow observer, and together they push the inflatable raft over the edge of the boat. The motorboat must stay at least thirty feet from Jago. The observer rows while the man leans over the edge and squirts the liquid into Jago’s mouth. It is congealed, the consistency of cottage cheese. Jago feels his stomach constrict and his muscles tense. For a moment he feels he might throw up. Then it passes. He flips to the breaststroke and the man on the raft gestures for the rower to back away. Jago is grateful.  

The eighth mile.
For his fourteenth birthday, Jago’s father gave him the ocean. They lived in a small trailer three miles from the coast. It sat in a mudhole—a depression between two small slopes. It smelled of clay and the air tasted of dust. Jago clapped five times whenever he stepped inside. The day they moved, the sun was fierce. Jago’s father promised he would take him to the water that night. All Jago knew of the ocean was from a picture book on the third shelf of aisle five. It was blue. It was big. It was deep. At dusk, father and son drove to the shore. Close your eyes Jago, his father told him. Jago did. When he opened them again he saw the ocean through the windshield. It was a hundred presents under the tree Christmas morning. It was a basket of cinnamon mints sitting on the counter. It was holding your breath under water for three minutes and twenty-eight seconds. Happy Birthday Jago, his father said. It was glorious. 

The ninth mile.
It is midafternoon and the waters have riled. The waves are bigger here, in the middle of the channel. He is nine miles from where he started at the port of Dover, and twelve miles away from Cap Gris-Nez, his final destination. He knew the water wouldn’t be kind for long. The tide is pulling him back and the winds are pushing against his body. His arms cut through the waves with a steady precision, yet Jago can feel his muscles strain. He must stay strong. In Florida, Jago spent every afternoon in the water. His father bought him a bus pass and told him to ride the forty-nine twelve minutes to the coast. Jago’s father worked second shift and kept the trailer locked until eight at night. Jago would spend a daily four hours tasting the Atlantic Ocean. It was there, on the white shores of the sunshine state, that Jago learned to follow the tides, float in the currents, cut through the waves. It was there that Jago became an open-water swimmer.  

The tenth mile. 
Jago never knew about the powder in the linen closet, or the clients his father met in abandoned buildings while his son hid behind the plastic chair at the city pool, but Jago knew about Grant. After his mother left in a truck with no tailgate, Jago’s father had developed an addiction. Not to the drugs themselves, but to their lucrative benefits. Grant, his father’s boss, was from the Bahamas and spoke with a soft accent that made each of his words curve into the next. You’re such a pretty boy, he would say. Then, running his fingers down the Jago’s arm, How did you get to be such a pretty boy? Jago would clap his hands five times and look at the window. The glass was cracked, the scar of a rock thrown from soiled fingers. Jago would look at the broken ripples the way one studies a map of uncharted routes. It needs to be fixed, Jago heard Grant tell his father. It looks suspicious to have a broken window. You don’t want to draw attention. His father’s hair was unruly, his voice aged, his fingers trembled. There were nights where Jago would come home after an afternoon spent in the water to the trailer dark and locked. His fifteen-year-old body, wrinkled from the ocean’s beating, would shake as he waited on the back step. Sorry, Jago, his father would always apologize. 

The eleventh mile.
In the English Channel, Jago plays games. If he could count to one hundred, then the pain in the upper corner of his ribcage would subside. If he could keep his face in the water for two hundred strokes, then he would complete the swim. If he could cross the finish line, then he would be strong. In Florida, Jago had been able to swim three hours without stopping. Such muscles, Grant told him as he squeezed the boy’s bicep. Grant was at the trailer more now. His presence was the taste of Granny Smith apples on Jago’s tongue. Eleven miles deep, and the sea water is hurting Jago’s mouth. He had expected this. The salt from the English Channel slips down his throat, coating his gums and burning the inside of his cheeks. He can feel the sores with the tip of his tongue. They are like scales forming from the inside. Soon they will begin to bleed.    

The twelfth mile.
Grant was sitting on the couch when Jago got to the trailer. Jago asked where his father was. On an errand, Grant said. Jago had been in the water, and his skin was coated in fine sand and a rough layer of dried salt. It stung the corners of his eyes. He clapped five times. Amused, Grant stood and let the back of his fingers brush against Jago’s cheek. Such a pretty boy, he mused. It looks like the water has left a mark on you. Grant rubbed a grain of sand between his fingers. Jago began to hum. Let’s get you cleaned up in the shower, Grant said. Jago didn’t like the way Grant’s fingers curled around his wrist. Your daddy isn’t here now, the man said. He doesn’t have to know that you’re a little faggot. When Grant pulled him towards the bathroom, Jago resisted. He clapped his hands five times, fast. Jago loved the shower, but he didn’t understand why Grant was taking his clothes off. Such a pretty boy. Jago hummed. The bathroom smelled like mold. The water was too hot. The salt is burning Jago’s eyes. The salt is burning his mouth. The sores burst. Jago can taste the blood.  

The thirteenth mile.

The fourteenth mile. 

The fifteenth mile. 
There is a faint tinge of pink beneath him. It is small—a tiny pinprick of color swimming some twenty feet below his body. He adjusts the snorkel in his mouth and keeps his face in the water as he treads. The creature bobs steadily. The head is like a giant mushroom and the tentacles are like lace streamers cut from decorative scissors. Jago watches the creature swimming beneath him, an underwater audience propelling his progress. It is a jellyfish. It is beautiful.  

The sixteenth mile. 
The woman from protective services came on a Tuesday. She knew about the drugs. She didn’t know about the shower. Jago’s father was taken away in handcuffs. He wouldn’t look at his son’s face. Jago watched the red and blue glow of the lights and felt dizzy. The woman brought Jago to a building with four floors in a town, twenty miles from the ocean. There were too many people there, and Jago clapped constantly. He didn’t like the smell of bleach or the peppermints on the counter. He asked when his father was coming. They all said soon. They were lying. A man named Carlos took Jago to the lake. I hear you like the water, he said. Carlos was thin-faced, balding, and round in the middle. A social worker specializing in the cognitively impaired, he took to Jago right away. Carlos had a brother who was born with Fragile X, and when he saw the boy’s elongated face awaken at the sight of water, he saw his brother’s Popsicle stained grin. 

The seventeenth mile. 
Jago is thankful for the night tide. It is nearly twilight, and the waters have calmed. Jago’s body is weathered, but strong. Aided by the rolling tide, he knows the strokes will be easier now. Let the waves coax you, Carlos had said. Here the water is your friend. Jago’s breathing is staggered.  He knows he exerted himself too much in the first mile, now he must pay the price. The jellyfish below him has moved on, and Jago wishes he had the creature’s lace tentacles to compel him forward. Now he is swimming alone. You are never alone in the sea, Carlos told him. Remember that. Jago knew Carlos had been a swimmer once. At twenty-one, Carlos had swam across the English Channel. That was before his collarbone broke in a car crash that left him bent to the right. Still, Carlos remembered the waters between the port of Dover and Cap Gris-Nez. It is cold there, he told Jago. Colder than most parts of the Atlantic. Jago told him that he liked the cold.  You’re not ready yet, Carlos responded to the boy’s continual pleas. It takes a tremendous amount of strength. I am strong Carlos. Yes you are, the man smiled. But the waters test more than just physical strength. Jago sank underwater and began to count. 

The eighteenth mile. 
Carlos had been watching Jago swim for nearly a year. Jago was sixteen and loved to be timed.  How many minutes could he hold his breath, how many laps could he chart around the lake, how many hours could he swim without stopping. Three days a week, Carlos would take Jago to the ocean. There, he would watch as the boy crested over the cuff of waves, and cheered at the seconds on a sand crusted stopwatch. Only when the lull of a lone foghorn filled the air did Jago stop swimming to clap five times. For Jago, the sound of the foghorn was red and blue lights and his father in handcuffs. You can’t stop swimming every time the horn blows, Carlos told Jago. When you hear the sound you need to think of something else.  The foghorn blew, Jago thought of cinnamon mints, he clapped. The foghorn blew, Jago thought of swimming lessons, he clapped. The foghorn blew, Jago thought of jellyfish, he clapped. Carlos bought a horn. They practiced. Nothing worked. Jago, Carlos said, when I blow the horn, I want you to hold your breath and count to one hundred. Jago was in the lake then and his body cut through the water with practiced ease. The horn blew and Jago felt the swell of dizziness. He held his breath and began to count. His fingers tingled but the counting calmed him. He heard Carlos cheer from the shore. Jago, Carlos called when the boy emerged, I think it’s time we start training.   

The nineteenth mile.
Five days before they flew to Dover, Carlos took Jago to the county jail. Jago hadn’t seen his father in three years. There was a security gate, and Jago hated the sound of the monitor’s hum.  He clapped as the man with the badge waved a wand over his body. In the courtyard, Jago was able to sit with his father at a long table etched in carved out words. Do you want to write your name, his father asked. Jago nodded and watched him pick a stick from the ground. He showed Jago how to scratch letters into the wood. Carlos told me you are going to swim across the English Channel, said Jago’s father. You are so strong. Jago flexed his muscles and his father laughed. His laughter was a familiar melody Jago hadn’t realized he had forgotten. He closed his eyes and saw his father sitting beside him looking at the ocean through the windshield. Happy Birthday, Jago. Jago looked down at the carved letters on the wooden table. He clapped five times. I’m sorry Jago, his father said. I’m so sorry I won’t be there to see you swim.   

The twentieth mile.
Carlos stands on the back of the boat and watches Jago swim. His form is strong, but Carlos knows the boy is weary. Jago has been swimming for eight hours. For Jago, it is a record amount of time. The boy will be pleased. Carlos and Jago have spent two years training for this race, and Carlos tastes the bittersweet air of the night. Yesterday they had stood on the shores of Dover and looked across the channel with determination. Jago had dived into the water with the tick of the stopwatch and swam with precise strokes. Tomorrow they will stand on the shores of Cap Gris-Nez and look across the channel with victory. Jago will dunk his head under the waves and spout water between his lips. Tomorrow Jago will be in the papers. His name will be on the news. He will be the first boy with Fragile X Syndrome to swim across the English Channel. Carlos is proud. 

The last mile.
If Jago looked up he would be able to see the shoreline. Even at dusk, the coast is the sound of applause. Jago’s body is numb and he feels more like liquid than solid. His fingers are wrinkled and nails worn. His mouth is a rough canvas and will need medical attention. The muscles in his legs have given up crying in protest, and now are a dull ache that he feels with every wave that churns his empty stomach. Jago feels the pull of the current and his body softens to its grasp.  Jago begins to sink. He feels his body lifted from the floor and hits the water in the city pool with a deafening splash. The liquid fills his nose and stings his skin. The light above the pool dims as Jago sinks to the bottom of the deep end. Swim, Jago, his father’s voice is muffled. One more mile, Jago, calls the man on the boat. In the deep end everything is silent. Jago can hear his heartbeat. One more mile. You are strong, Jago. The water is warm and Jago wishes he could stay in the deep end forever. But his lungs constrict and he sees the florescent light above the surface. His five-year-old legs kick and his arms turn. One more mile. Jago is strong. You will either sink, his father says, his voice echoing under the high ceiling of the city pool, or you will swim. 

And Jago swims.

Abigail Rose received a BA in English from Grand Valley State University. Currently, she is living in Ohio where she is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Bowling Green State University.

This is Abigail's first publication.