Muriel Leung

Life of a Drowning

sometimes
there is more water
in a poem
than in the sea

— Nayyirah Waheed

In a dream, I began to flood.

In the basement of an old house on the far edges of Queens (its windows boarded up), I was a shut girl. Water poured out the cracks of me.

Sitting across on a little rowboat—a lover in all fur, nonplussed by circumstance. I was in love though I knew only his purple insides. He looked at me with ecstatic doom and I knew the callousness and perfect shape of this longing. There was a dim light and he touched me there. The basement filled with water and we rose with it. Our heads touched the ceiling. Said my heart: It is the end. He opened his mouth and there I lived for all the remaining minutes of my very short life.

One winter, I stepped out of my house and planted my body in a patch of white snow. I wanted to know what it would be like to be both anvil and a green shoot. There I slept until the cold nursed then bruised me. Though I lived, the snow grew inside me in the years to come.

What my preoccupations with dying have taught me is that my body is of me and also not. A myth made of red cardinals on a blood bed. Many have been here before. They would point to one end of me and say, This is mine and then another, This is also mine. When I undressed, it would also be this way: they peeled off one skin and then another. Like a Russian nesting doll set, I wobbled with my various hollows when they shelled me out. I have learned in the throes of these moments to celebrate what’s missing. There were so many hands. They were always searching, going, Come out, come out or else we will rub you out.

Your body is not yours. The path of water from one country to another is stored in the silo of my father’s back breaking. There is no room for me except what I can carry too. We saddle quickly into the foam of an imperfect dream—the one where I wash him in a tub full of soot beneath a raining sky. I know this puckered body better than my own. I have held its veins like clutches of fine wire. Take care of each other, he says. When I touch the corner of his mouth, he dissolves into ash and he never visits again.

What does it mean that our lungs are 90 percent water and yet we are capsized every time?

French immunologist Jacques Benveniste says that water is capable of memory—the way its molecules can touch an antibody and retain its biology even long after the antibody’s departure. This is remarkable especially considering how water molecules’ hydrogen bonds are constantly shifting. Despite water’s propensity towards movement—the unstable nature of its parts—it recalls every drowning.

How the guppies got along in mourning times: in a fish tank wide as the room of our breaths, my brother swam among the scavenger fish with bright lights above his head. When he floundered, I would lift him with my back. Because we had no gills, we would bob heavily through the water, bashing against the surface.

How ready I was to give my body over despite the off-knowledge, the sick-in-the-hole feeling in the gut—I was not made for this life.

Returning to the scene as one would to a crime. What crime. Guilt dangles over the corrupted space. Seized light overhead and the body keeps shrinking. What crime. He says he loves her so what crime. She makes herself flat as a lake in a windless town. Nothing moves her. Not even the red spiraling out from her in circle thread. What crime spans beyond a year and she lets it. The thread lengthens into the future and it weaves its red lining into every marrow of her life, which is now no different than criminal and the crime.

I brought the color red to my mother who fashioned it into a red cloak and I wore it so close to my person that none of me ever got out.

They try and beautify Ophelia’s drowning by narrating the musical qualities of her mad woman song. They say her dress ballooned around her in water’s mud until its heaviness dragged her down. What life among the algae she must have swallowed, that brown lake stench cuffed by her ladylike sadness. The frantic fish pushing their mouths against her unhurried flesh. They caught her from the waist down and peeled her in the way of flower.

Grief, in many ways, kept her afloat. She sang to build an anchor. To sink herself. Her terrible half-life.

Once when I was a jar, I invited a stranger home to rattle me. He shook and he shook. He saw that inside the jar was a city within water and the lights were bare. He placed his hand on the lid to pry the damn thing off but broke his hand. Placed his teeth on the lid’s edge and shattered his jaw. When he left, I collected his broken things, which were vital to powering my city.

I was describing to my mother the sensation of moving through my days like a runner trying to finish a marathon in a pool of molasses. I saw that the world was on fire but I was only ready for the most immediate disaster, which was the realization that I could not swim and thus was sinking with painful slowness. I might have cried too. She said, Can you manage and it was not a question. I told her I was a marriage of fine and fine. My sadness was not louder than her relief.